There’s a Great Future in Plastics. Just Not the One We Thought. by Marcia Robbins, February 28 2018, 0 Comments

Plastic was modern. It was convenient. It accelerated industrial creativity. “There’s a great future in plastics.” We’ve referenced that movie quote before in an earlier article, “The Plastic Invasion,” which provides background on our plastic problem and collaborative efforts to address it through an initiative called The New Plastics Economy. This article focuses on progress made to address the challenges with plastics, their various forms and our future.

Since World War II, plastics have been on a trajectory that embraced the new consumerism of the post-war era. This followed technological advances utilized fully in World War II plastics production, propelled by using injection moldings for mass production in the war effort. At the end of the war, empty factories converted to peacetime consumer-based production. Ever since, plastic has transformed and pervaded our lives in ways convenient, fun, colorful and now we know also pernicious.

Today the future in plastics revolves around how to control a toxic mess of products. Petroleum-based plastic waste doesn’t biodegrade for hundreds, or even thousands of years, and ends up mostly in landfills. It releases toxic chemicals when burned. Or it degrades into microplastic pollution not visible to the naked eye. Looking out on the oceans, these small pieces accumulate in massive, swirling, ocean gyres the size of countries. Five of these giant gyres have been identified in the North Atlantic, South Atlantic, North Pacific (the Great Pacific garbage patch), South Pacific and Indian Oceans. Last year, a smaller gyre of microplastic was found for the first time in the Arctic, near Greenland.   

Birds and marine life consume microplastic waste. It ends up harming our food chain, and potentially, the people who consume seafood without knowing whether it has been contaminated.

Bioplastics, Biodegradable, Oxo-Degradable?

Bioplastics, biodegradable plastic, oxo-degradable plastic—there are a lot of labels purporting to solve part of the plastic waste problem and a lot of confusion about how effective they are. Bioplastics are made from renewable, natural materials like corn starch and cellulose and are intended to break down more rapidly and be fully compostable—returning the components back into the ecosystem without harm to the environment. Biodegradable plastics, including a form called oxo-degradable plastic, are still petrochemical based, but designed to degrade more quickly than traditional plastics, under the right conditions. They contain additives that facilitate a faster breakdown and require exposure to light, oxygen, moisture and heat as catalysts for decomposition. The problem with this latter category is disposal. If placed in landfills, where so much plastic waste ends up, oxo-degradable plastic is trapped tight and will not degrade over time. And even if these plastics degrade, they may not fully compost, adding microplastic into the ecosystem like traditional plastics.

Recycling Innovators Awards

Some plastic can be recycled, but over 90% of it doesn’t get recycled. But with the future in mind and with recognition that we need to change course, today we see more and more innovation than ever in recycling technology and in plastic recycled for consumer-lifestyle products, building and construction materials, and packaging. On Monday, in recognition of innovators in recycling, the short list of finalists was announced for the first-ever Plastic Recycling Awards Europe. These awards will be announced at the Plastics Recycling Show Europe, taking place April 24-25, 2018. Check out the innovators here.

The New Plastics Economy Initiative on the Circular Economy

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation is leading a movement called the New Plastics Economy, a three-year initiative to apply principals of a circular economy to innovation on plastics, starting with packaging. The Foundation describes the circular economy as one that is “restorative and regenerative by design.” In a circular economy, the manufacturing lifecycle loop economizes and minimizes inputs, recycles materials, utilizes renewable energy sources, and eliminates waste at each stage in the production and deployment of products. At the end of their lifecycle, the products go back into the loop as inputs. The New Plastics Economy is a collaboration among industry, academia and governments.

11 Brands Commit to 100% Reusable, Recycled, Compostable Packaging by 2025

At the World Economic Forum in Davos last month, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation announced that 11 leading brands, retailers and packaging companies are taking new steps in their commitment to a New Plastics Economy. These organizations are committing to use 100% reusable, recyclable, or compostable packaging by the year 2025. This coalition includes Amcor, Ecover, evian, L’Oreal, Mars, M&S, PepsiCo, The Coca-Cola Company, Unilever, Walmart and Werner & Mertz. If successful, more than 6 million tons of plastic packaging a year, generated by these companies, will enter the circular economy. Instead of degrading into microplastic that pollutes our oceans or fills up our landfills, this plastic packaging waste will be successfully reused, recycled or composted. The announcement calls for the entire consumer goods industry to follow their lead.

The Problem with Oxo-Degradable Plastic and Call-to-Action

The plastic packaging commitment at Davos followed a more massive call-to-action by the Foundation and 150 organizations, opposing the use of oxo-degradable plastic packaging. On November 5, 2017, under the umbrella of the New Plastics Economy initiative, this bigger coalition called on governments around the world to ban oxo-degradable plastic packaging and phase out its usage. Major multi-national firms are participating in this call for a ban, including PepsiCo, Unilever, CocaCola, Danone and Mars Inc. France already banned its use nationwide in 2015.  

“The available evidence overwhelmingly suggests oxo-degradable plastics do not achieve what their producers claim and instead contribute to microplastic pollution. In addition, these materials are not suited for effective long-term reuse, recycling at scale or composting, meaning they cannot be part of the circular economy,” said Rob Opsomer, Lead for Systemic Initiatives at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, in the coalition’s call-to-action.

Producers of oxo-degradable plastic have promoted it as an environmentally friendly alternative to conventional, non-degradable plastics with claims it breaks down into non-harmful, basic components.

The coalition disagrees with these producers, after studies provided a significant amount of evidence that oxo-degradable plastics do not completely break down. Like conventional plastics, they contribute to the microplastic pollution problem in oceans and landfills. Unless these plastics can be completely broken down into bio material, they remain a problem for the environment.

Our great future in plastics is not the one envisioned over 50 years ago, but one we must address.