There’s a spat between tech companies trying to develop a new generation of plastics that biodegrade harmlessly without leaving a trace and skeptics worried that such novel substances won’t live up to their promise and will worsen the plastic waste problem.
The companies are calling for more time to perfect their inventions — which they say differ from earlier efforts to make cleaner plastics — while environmental campaigners demand even firmer regulatory action to get rid of plastic garbage. Firms are also battling against the image problem of an earlier generation of innovative biodegradable plastics that experts say haven’t lived up to the hype.
“The popular understanding of biodegradability is based on legacy solutions such as oxodegradable plastic, many of which unfortunately don’t work,” said Niall Dunne, the CEO of British firm Polymateria, adding that the “landscape has moved on significantly yet outdated perceptions remain.”
Polymateria has developed a process, called biotransformation, to produce plastic products it says decompose harmlessly when littered. It involves mixing bio-transformation chemicals with normal plastics to create food and drink packaging, bubble wrap, fruit nets, plastic bags and the like. The technology helped to define a new British standard for biodegradability.
“The role of innovation is consistently underestimated when solving complex global issues, including climate change and plastic pollution,” Dunne said.
But potential innovations like that are facing headwinds.
An expert study, published last week, found that a lack of standards and reliable certification schemes for biodegradable plastics — and, in some cases, misleading labeling — confuses consumers and can “exacerbate” environmental pollution.
The biggest problem, according to the report from the Science Advice for Policy by European Academies, is that while biodegradables can break down under ideal conditions they have a much tougher time doing so in a natural environment like deep in a landfill or on a beach.
Polymateria is tackling those issues. Although it can be recycled in the normal way, its new plastic will decompose into a wax or grease-like substance in a matter of months when exposed to sunlight, air and water. Bacteria and fungi will digest the wax, breaking it down into carbon dioxide, water and more microbes. Most importantly, there are no microplastics left behind.
For now the additives only work when added to the most littered type of plastics — polyolefins, which include polyethylene (plastic bags and packaging) and polypropylene (plastic cups and cutlery, bottle caps and containers).
In lab tests that mimic ambient real-world conditions, “there’s nothing left of polyethylene waxes in 226 days and the polypropylene waxes disappear in 336 days,” said Dunne.
The plan is to stamp a “recycle by” date on each piece of plastic to show consumers that they have a deadline to dispose of them responsibly in the recycling system before they start breaking down.
The technology is currently being tested in a handful of countries, including the U.K. and India, but has already helped to define the first standard for measuring biodegradability, published by the U.K.’s national standards body BSI in October.
That European Commission is also busy developing its own policy framework for bio-based plastics and biodegradable or compostable plastics, which it expects to adopt next year.
Not everyone is lyrical about Polymateria.
For one thing, the additive adds roughly 10 to 15 percent to the overall cost of packaging. There’s also the question of whether plastics should be made biodegradable in the first place.
British environmental groups including RECOUP and the Environmental Services Association wrote to the BSI, insisting the standard “will increase the prevalence of litter in all environments.” They fear that the concept of being able to throw away litter and assume it will biodegrade supports the continued use of plastics.
But Dunne said that most of the problem with plastic waste is due to exports to non-EU countries where it’s “not being recycled and is winding up in unmanaged waste systems,” he said, estimating that littering only accounts for 2 percent of the issue.
He argued that the solution is “innovative technologies which permit reuse and recycling” as well as redesigning materials to be biodegradable at the end of their useful life “if we are really serious about actually solving this global problem.”
The European Commission on Tuesday adopted new waste shipment rules going into effect in January that ban the export of plastic waste from the EU to non-OECD countries, except for clean plastic waste sent for recycling.
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