Scientists and inventors are finding ways to beat plastic
By BEL JACOBS
Tech companies are turning their attention to the problem of non-biodegradable plastics because, like it or not, there’s a reason why plastic is so ubiquitous and that’s because it’s so terribly, tragically, hardy. Things are changing. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, leading brands, retailers and packaging companies including Ecover, L’Oréal, Mars, M&S, PepsiCo, Nestlé, Colgate-Palmolive, Coca-Cola, Unilever and Walmart, have committed to working towards using 100% reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging by 2025 or earlier. Meanwhile, innovators are looking at other solutions. This is where those chemistry lessons might have come in handy but stick with it: the issues are important. From separating out fibres to plastics that dissolve in water, here are inventions that you may just, one day, find on a shop floor near you.
Currently, less than 1% of non-wearable textiles are turned back into new ones due to the shortcomings of existing recycling methods, which can't separate textile blends. These are textiles in which cotton and polyester are bound together and make up 80 per cent of all textiles. Separating the fibres is a necessary step in re-use. Worn Again Technologies is working on trail-blazing technology to split polyester and cotton to create two end fibres that are just as good as - and as cheap as - virgin resources. The importance of this can’t be stressed and, while the ordinary punter may not be excited - yet - industry is jumping. “There are enough textiles and plastic bottles ‘above ground’ and in circulation today to meet our annual demand for raw materials to make new clothing and textiles,” explains CEO Cyndi Rhoades. “With [this tech], there will be no need to use virgin oil by-products to make new polyester and the industry will be able to radically decrease the amount of virgin cotton going into clothing by displacing it with new cellulose fibres recaptured from existing clothing.”
Science labs around the world are investigating the potential of plant-based plastics. Certified compostable, BioBag’s cling wrap is derived from substances obtained from plants such as cornstarch, vegetable oils and compostable polymers from both renewable raw materials and fossil raw materials. SoluBag, a Chilean startup, has created a non-plastic biodegradable bag that dissolves in water in just five minutes. The secret? A type of polyvinyl alcohol (PVA) derived from limestone is used as the chemical base of the bag - rather than nasty oil derivatives, which prevent placcy bags from breaking down.
Last year, Dame Ellen McArthur’s New Plastics Economy launched the $2m Innovation Prize to support and promote just such work. Shining examples include a collaboration between Full Cycle Bioplastics, Elk Packaging, and Associated Labels and Packaging who make a compostable high-performance material from renewable materials, agricultural by-products and food waste which can pack a broad range of products from granola bars and crisps to laundry detergent. Inspired by the way nature encapsulates liquids using membranes, from egg yolks to cells or fruits, Delta sorts out the problem of non-recyclable, single-use sachets with edible and compostable alternatives. Find out more about the New Plastics Economy Accelerator Programme here: https://newplasticseconomy.org/projects/innovation-priz
In 2016, in a waste dump in Japan, scientists discovered a bacterium that had evolved to eat plastic. Talk about timing. Now, an international team, led by the University of Portsmouth, have worked to make it even better at breaking down he PET plastic used for soft drink bottles. It takes a few days but that beats the time it takes to break down in nature by, hmm, lots. Scientists think that plastic-eating bugs might one day be sprayed on the huge plastic garbage patches in the oceans to clean them up.
“What we are hoping to do is use this enzyme to turn this plastic back into its original components, so we can literally recycle it back to plastic,” Prof John McGeehan, at the University of Portsmouth, UK, told The Guardian. “It means we won’t need to dig up any more oil and, fundamentally, it should reduce the amount of plastic in the environment.”
Devastated by the amount of rubbish thrown onto beaches off the coast of Maine, after a heavy storm in 2009, windsurfing teacher Rachael Miller decided to find ways to stop plastics from ver reaching the ocean. Eleven years later, after a successful Kickstarter campaign, she’s begun selling the Cora Ball, a special gadget for capturing the microfibres that come off synthetic clothing in the wash. The Ball, constructed from recycled rubber, measures 4 inches in diameter and catches between a quarter and a third of microfibres in every wash by imitating the structure of coral in the ocean. If just 10 per cent of US households used the Cora Ball, it would keep the equivalent of 30 million water bottles from washing into public waterways a year, says Miller. The Cora Ball is one of several new inventions designed to stop microfibres reaching our seas. Perhaps the most high profile is the Guppyfriend laundry bag, developed by German surfers Alexander Nolte during a brainstorming session at a beer garden (surely the birthplace of the most inspired ideas in the world). The bag cushions clothes to release fewer plastic fibres and catches those that form.