Plastics are far from fantastic, but bioplastics offer hope
We can run cars without using fossil fuels and power entire homes with solar energy, but we’ve yet to master recycling plastic. This is a serious global issue, highlighted by China’s recent ban on almost all types of plastic imports. As the world’s biggest processor of recyclable materials, China’s decision could have grave international consequences. The UK, for example, previously sent two thirds of its used plastics to China to be recycled. As plastic waste builds up in landfill sites, there’s no more hiding from the problem. Shaking the reliance on plastics will be no easy task. . . Can technology help to solve this waste epidemic, and which companies are working to achieve this aim?
Better latte than never
In the UK, only one per cent of coffee cups are recycled, leading to calls for an extra charge of 25p on disposable cups. The so called ‘latte levy’, as well as the hugely successful 5p charge on plastic bags and a ban on plastic microbeads in cosmetics, shows that official bodies are taking some steps to change public attitudes. It’s clear that incentives are needed to encourage consumers to consider the extent of their plastic consumption, but this is only half of the battle. Greater efforts are also needed to teach people how and what to recycle. The first step, though, is for manufacturers to produce things that can actually be recycled.
From a business perspective, it has seemed all too easy to blame red tape and ‘policy’. However, interest in Materials Science, 3D printing and biomaterials could provide the answer. Coca Cola, for example, has sold more than 50bn PlantBottles, which contain 30 per cent bioplastic. Lego is also helping to build a sustainable future by investing over $150m in sustainable materials research. Innovative, alternative biomaterials are also being developed by startups like Lactips. The French company has made a bioplastic from casein, the main protein found in milk, that dissolves in water. This is ideal for dishwasher tablets or pesticides, but what about biodegradable options for products that we don’t want to immediately disappear? At Pennsylvania State University, Professor Jeffrey Catchmark has created natural coverings that can withstand heat, oil, and water. There are clearly many options available – but for consumers to accept them, they need to match established plastic options on both convenience and price. Some companies are taking steps to ditching plastic altogether – this month, supermarket chain Iceland became the first major retailer to announce they would eliminate plastic from its own brand products by 2023.
Drastic disruption in plastic consumption
If plastics continue to dominate manufacturing materials, there will be shocking environmental consequences. By 2050, for example, the Ellen MacArther Foundation and the World Economic Forum state that there will be more plastic in the sea than fish. China’s decision to ban the import of most plastics, as well as similar anti-plastic enforcement in other countries like Kenya, has triggered international efforts to solve the plastic problem. The expansion of Materials Science, 3D printing and biomaterials is promising, reflecting corporate commitment to sustainability. The development of bioplastics is undoubtedly a huge business opportunity. Established companies have the resources to invest in research, so startups and academic institutions are likely to pursue partnerships. This will contribute to the trend of collaboration between startups, incumbents and academic institutions. Once biodegradable alternatives can compete with existing products, stubborn manufacturers will be forced to rethink their choice of materials. This could also impact the legacy oil industry, which supplies some of the chemicals used to create plastic. The rise of alternative options will lower demand for these chemicals, cutting off another stream of revenue. While there are a number of companies and governing bodies working to disrupt the distribution of waste, the dilemma won’t go away until they become the majority. Fortunately, major businesses and official organisations appear to be realising that the less they do about it, the more difficult the problem will be.
Finding ways to reduce, reuse or replace plastic must happen. Hopefully advances in Materials Science, 3D printing, and biomaterials, alongside a readiness to support sustainable business development, will help to achieve this. Far more attention should be given to finding solutions for these issues, instead of strangling the process with red tape. Companies like Coca Cola and Lego are leading the way, as are national governments – namely China. However, instead of simply shutting off access to international recycling, maybe it would be more advisable to join in a combined global effort to solve what is a serious, worldwide problem.
What other incentives could be put in place to encourage businesses to use recyclable materials? Whose responsibility is it to cut the red tape around recycling? Should different countries and businesses be responsible for their own waste plastic, or collaborate together? Is any business or country moving fast enough on this? Please share your thoughts and opinions.