Complex Made Simple

Here are the latest innovative ways to rid the planet of plastics

Our oceans contain 300 million tons of plastic waste and we add another 8 million every year. Creative efforts are underway to reverse this trend

Researchers developed a degradable plastic that breaks down after being exposed to sunlight and air Compostable plastic can be turned into a foam that functions as building insulation 70% of all plastic produced is discarded and ends up in landfills

Some 10 million tons of plastic waste end up in the oceans each year, according to the World Economic Forum. Our oceans contain 300 million tons of plastic waste and we add another 8 million every year. Plastic waste is such a problem that it causes flooding in some parts of the world.  

In a bid to tackle the global problem of plastic pollution, researchers developed a degradable plastic that breaks down after being exposed to sunlight and air for only a week, not over decades or even centuries it can take for some everyday plastic items to decompose.

In a paper published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society (JACS), the researchers show how a naturally occurring non-toxic small molecule doesn’t leave microplastic fragments in the environment.

The scientists used nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) and mass spectroscopy chemical characterization to reveal their findings on the plastic, a petroleum-based polymer.

The new degradable plastic could be mixed with other plastics to make more durable items while having the added benefit of decomposing faster in landfills.

The degradable plastic could be particularly useful in electronics devices as it is shielded from air and sunlight, allowing it to last for years. Once at a landfill, the device would be broken up and the plastics would likely be exposed to the sun, meaning they would decompose within days.

The byproduct of the plastic, succinic acid, could also be upcycled for commercial use in the pharmaceutical and food industries.

In a similar vein, researchers from Washington State University recently developed a new method that upcycles non-biodegradable plastics into jet fuel.

Compostable plastic into foam

Compostable plastic can be turned into a foam that functions as building insulation, creating a potential solution to difficulties in recycling the material.

Polylactic acid (PLA) is a plastic made of fermented starch from corn or sugar cane. It is designed to break down into harmless material once used and disposed of, but doing so requires industrial composting, which isn’t available in all locations.

If PLA makes its way into the environment, it often won’t break down. Because of this, it is classed as compostable rather than biodegradable by the EU.

The University of Canterbury in New Zealand has developed a method to convert plastic knives, spoons, and forks made from PLA into foam that can be turned into insulation for walls or flotation devices.

Making PLA plastics directly recyclable in this way could be a better way to alleviate plastic pollution than industrial composting.  

Tips to reduce plastic pollution

While plastic is easy to handle, lightweight, and highly durable, it has spread to every corner of our lives and increased our dependence on fossil fuels – its production uses 8% of the world’s oil.

Today, the plastic industry is valued at $522.6 billion, and it is expected to double in capacity by 2040.

Our oceans contain 300 million tons of plastic waste and we add another 8 million every year. And 70% of all plastic produced is discarded and ends up in landfills or leaks into nature and pollutes and on average, each person may well be ingesting five grams of microplastics every week.

Last year, 170 nations pledged to “significantly reduce” the use of plastic by 2030.

On average, plastic bags are used for 25 minutes but it takes between 100 to 500 years for them to disintegrate. And according to Zero Waste Europe, “3.4 million tons of plastic carrier bags are produced in the EU every year, the weight of more than two million cars.”

Replacing your disposable plastic bag with a reusable shopping bag, keeping your refillable close by to avoid buying plastic bottles, or buying in bulk to reduce plastic packaging are amongst the simplest yet most impactful things to do.

Loop, a fast-growing shopping platform, leads the way by embracing a full circularity strategy. Already collaborating with major brands such as Nestlé and Danone, its strategy is that of “the milkman”. They deliver, pick up, clean, and refill.

Companies are looking at nature to produce bio-based alternatives.

While sugar cane and corn are popular options, their frequent reliance on synthetic fertilisers, use of arable land and tendency for monoculture don’t always make them environmentally friendly.

A new alternative is gaining traction – algae. This plant-based, non-toxic alternative to plastic has the same characteristics as petroleum-based plastics, whilst being biodegradable in nature.

Dutch designers Eric Klarenbeek and Maartje Dros have developed a bioplastic using algae. In their Algae Platform at the Atelier Luma in Camargues, France, they cultivate locally sourced algae which they dry and process into a material that can be used to print 3D objects.

Production must also be rethought to include less virgin plastic by reusing materials, using recycled plastics, and remanufacturing existing items to extend their lifespan.

The fashion industry, for example, accounts for 10% of all humanity’s carbon emissions – more than “all international flights and maritime shipping combined.”

Brands have understood this and are increasingly looking for sustainable textiles to integrate into their lines and alternative options to reduce their production such as renting and second-hand clothing lines.