Plastic’s not so fantastic

plastic recycling

In 2018 packaging has consistently made the headlines – but for all the wrong reasons. The environmental concerns around plastic remain high on the media agenda, and going forward, the biggest challenge facing many industries is sustainability and lessening the impact on our world caused by plastic waste. According to a study published in Science Advances more than 8 billion metric tons of plastic has been produced since the 1950s. Of this number, 6.3 billion metric tons have become plastic waste with just 9 per cent of that ever being recycled. Innovation in sustainable packaging technologies can play a vital role in redressing the imbalance. Sustainable packaging is now much more than just recycling. In addition to environmental protection, it must satisfy other considerations like consumer preference and business growth.

A trend that’s turning heads right now is the use of biodegradable materials to replace plastics in packaging and it’s easy to see why. Compostable packaging based on renewable origin biodegradable plastics and nanomaterials can not only boost the life expectancy of the product but it can also boost consumer health and safety. This fact has not gone unnoticed by a number of companies, including those based in the UK, who are engineering a cultural shift in modern packaging and manufacturing, as seen in the examples below.

Packaging with a pinch

Researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology in the US, are making strides towards developing a sustainable plastic alternative, with the help of crabs. With plastic waste particularly heavy in the food and beverage sector, many businesses are now looking to the ways they can reduce the use of plastic packaging and subsequent waste. In Georgia, researchers have developed a method to create a film by suspending cellulose and chitin nanofibres from crab shells. Once the suspension is fully dried the material is flexible, strong, transparent and most importantly, compostable. What’s more, the tests on the experimental material have also found a 67 per cent reduction in oxygen permeability over some forms of Poly Ethylene Teraphthalate (PET), which means it could even help keep foods fresher for longer.

Sustainability in the long term

Another example of shining innovation from businesses looking to overcome the plastic challenge can be found in Biopac. Founded in Worcestershire in 2002, the business was well ahead of the curve when it comes to developing sustainable packaging materials. Using everyday materials you’d expect to see in the average store cupboard, cornstarch, potato starch, recycled post (consumer waste) and palm (leaf sheaths) are used to make eco-friendly catering disposables from burger boxes, pizza packaging and food containers. The benefits of using biodegradable materials deliver several energy efficiencies, using 65% less energy than that required to produce oil-based plastics. In addition to this, manufacturing biodegradable products for consumers produces far less pollution as the products themselves will break back down into nontoxic components.

Creating a circular economy

Of course, while many businesses are now heavily investing in ways to engineer new materials to offer a credible plastic replacement, we are also seeing a rise in the number of businesses which are looking to find alternative uses for plastic waste. Here we’re seeing global business leaders such as Adidas, developing footwear and clothing which uses plastic found in the ocean.  Other businesses include, Bransford Webbs, which is in the process of revolutionising horticulture by leading a campaign to replace black plastic plant pots with a kerbside recyclable alternative made from carbon-free, recycled polypropylene. Perhaps one of the most innovative uses of plastic though can be found at Powerhouse Energy. The business has developed a process for turning plastic, as well as other waste, into synthesis gas, or syngas, which can then be either used to generate electricity or converted into hydrogen and carbon monoxide, both of which have industrial uses. Explaining the process behind converting plastic into synthesis gas, Powerhouse Energy CEO Keith Allum said: “We convert any waste plastic or tyres into small granules that we then run through an ultra-high temperature process that thermally degrades the material and converts it into an energy-rich gas. This is a completely closed cycle process that creates zero emissions.” The interaction between innovation and sustainability must become a strategic priority, and replacing plastic with more biodegradable materials will prove a significant step in the ongoing quest for environmental sustainability.

(Source: BBC News ‘Single-use plastics ban approved by European Parliament’)

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