Beautiful Thinking.

Champion the Changemakers: The legacy of plastic and the opportunities for a bio-friendly future

In a recent company Q&A on alternative packaging materials a colleague commented that as a society how much better off we could be if we didn’t have plastics…?

This question was reminiscent of a film scene; Monty Pythons ‘Life of Brian’ – when John Cleese’s character asks ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’ The group respond with a list of accomplishments finally leading Cleese’s character to conclude ‘Alright, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the freshwater system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?’

Could we stay the same for plastic, what has it ever done for us? Have we become too critical of our use and reliance on plastic as a material so widely used? Since the discovery and first fully synthetic plastic (Bakelite – 1907) its use has exploded to an almost immeasurable number of applications. From healthcare, construction, consumer goods, technology, packaging, and transportation plastic is everywhere.

What would our world look like if we hadn’t discovered it? Would we have seen the technological advancements and improvements in lifestyle we take for granted? Are there any other wonder materials that history passed by that may have led to better environmental outcomes? We will never know, but if you compare plastics to other materials in wide use such as glass or metals – plastic uses far less energy to manufacture and distribute, and perhaps has saved us from a far worse consequence.

Since the boom in plastic production and use from the 1950s, it is estimated that 9.2 billion tonnes have been produced up to 2017. From this less than 10% has been recycled. This is a terrible record.

Plastic can take 500 plus years to decompose and worryingly has entered the food chain. The ramifications for all biological life are still not fully understood, but the potential damage could be very significant. Had we known in the 1950s what we know now, would we have embarked on the plastic revolution? Perhaps if we understood more back then we could have built an infrastructure able to manage plastic and its after use.

But it is not all bad news; studies have found that certain species of bacteria have evolved to degrade plastics. Marine bacteria have adapted rapidly to the changing environment, breaking down the plastic polymers for a primary source of carbon and energy. These plastic chomping microorganisms haven’t escaped the glare of the recycling industry.

French biotech company, Carbios, (along with others) is commercialising their enzymatic recycling process. Following more than a decade of research by Carbios, a consortium of companies including L’Oréal, Nestlé Waters, PepsiCo and Suntory Beverage & Food Europe, have joined Carbios in successfully manufacturing sample bottles utilising the company’s enzymatic PET recycling technology on household name products including Perrier, Orangina, Pepsi Max and Biotherm.

“This is a truly transformational innovation that could finally fully close the loop on PET plastic supply globally, so that it never becomes waste.” – Carbios’ CEO Jean Claude Lumaret

Traditional mechanically recycled plastic polymers only withstand 3 to 5 cycles before they become an unusable waste product. With bio-recycling like Carbios’, the polymer chains are broken down to monomers, the building blocks of plastics. Monomers can then be used to rebuild plastics up to 50 times. Currently these microorganisms only like the ‘flavour’ of PET plastics; complex and multi-layered materials are more challenging for bio-recycling.

Development of enzymes capable of breaking down more testing waste, quicker and on a greater scale is ongoing. And all research suggests this will be achievable.

Chemical recycling is also developing at pace. Although it doesn’t sound as friendly and clean as bio recycling, chemical recycling has the same benefits and outcome. Plastic polymers are broken down (depolymerisation) to monomers to be reprocessed back into polymers (repolymerisation). The advantage of chemical recycling is that a mixture of plastics can be processed without the need for sorting. In addition, multi-layered plastics can be recycled.

There are, of course, alternatives to plastic. Plant-based bioplastics are becoming more widespread. Polylactic acid (PLA) extracted from plants used to build bioplastic, commonly corn and sugarcane, can be fully biodegradable and in the correct conditions can break down in a matter of weeks. However, without the infrastructure bioplastics can take as long to break down as their plastic equivalents. Maybe this should be a concern…

As more alternative greener materials come online, are we certain we have the infrastructure in place to handle them in a sustainable way?

Or are we going to repeat past mistakes and litter the Earth with yet more rubbish?

One thing is for certain, we are not yet done with plastic. Production has grown from 2 million tonnes globally in 1950, to 459.75 million tonnes in 2019. It is projected to reach 765.65 million tonnes by 2040. Meanwhile recycling of plastic has increased from 3.7% to 10% over the last 20 years. Landfill (49%) and mismanagement (22%) figures remain very high but are falling slowly.

Packaging accounts for 40% of global plastic consumption. There are positive moves away from plastics in the packaging sector where legislation on single use, taxes and producer responsibility bills are being rolled out internationally. Consumer attitudes are changing too; we are gradually becoming aware of the damage plastic has inflicted on the environment. But these changes are moving at a very slow pace, legislation is complex and consumer habits difficult to break.

We think we’ll get there.

In the packaging sector there will be a time where plastic use is both reduced to a minimum and fully adopted into a circular economy. But can we live without plastic? Unless we discover a new wonder material without consequence the answer is no, plastic will continue to be a part of our lifestyle for many years to come.

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