As the world shifts from fossil fuels to renewables, Big Oil regards plastic as its growth market. But a new generation of inventors are designing an array of creative alternatives that aim to send plastic packing
As the shift to clean energy gathers pace, oil and gas companies are hungrily eyeing up alternative fossil fuel markets – and the plastics industry is at the top of their hit list.
More than 99 per cent of plastics are made from fossil fuels, and alongside other petrochemical products like fertilisers and solvents, they’re set to account for as much as 50 per cent of the growth in demand for oil over the next three decades.
Although undeniably versatile and convenient, the toll plastics take on oceans, landscapes and wildlife is heartbreakingly plain to see. A more insidious impact is the industry’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, expected to outstrip that of coal-fired power stations within the next decade.
But there are, of course, alternatives. Really clever ones. Chemists, activists and designers are dreaming up ways to wean us off our fossil plastics habit. And then putting those dreams into action.
Positive News caught up with some of these innovators, all of whom are either former winners or finalists of the Green Alley Award, which recognises European startups for pioneering circular solutions.
The ‘biorecyclers’ taking a cue from Mother Nature
Enzymity’s future vision for plastic packaging means achieving true circularity – with a little help from plastic-eating bacteria. The Latvian startup tweaks naturally occurring enzymes to create supercharged mutants capable of breaking down fossil fuel plastics on an industrial scale.
While in conventional ‘mechanical recycling’, material is melted down, Enzymity’s ‘biorecycling’ method goes several steps further, splitting plastics into their molecular building blocks. These base chemicals can then be made into brand new plastics identical to virgin material derived from fossil fuels, or repurposed for other applications such as paints and coatings.
Plastic-munching organisms may sound like the stuff of nightmarish science fiction, but Enzymity co-founder Andrii Shekhirev says they hold the key to breaking our dependence on fossil fuel plastics.
“Plastics are amazing materials and right now we don’t have many close substitutes,” he says. “They’re still very useful. We just need to make them without using fossil fuels. Through chemical recycling we can use plastic waste streams instead.”
The design studio putting reusability first
Smarter design can close the loop on our throwaway culture, according to the team behind the German startup Cyclic.
Co-founder Marilu Valente designed the nature-inspired ‘Nepenthes’ refillable bottle for personal care staples like shower gel and shampoo, with each one helping to avoid the purchase of about 20 single-use bottles a year.
But while Cyclic’s designs strive to bring both recyclability and long life to the final product, reusability is the ultimate goal, says Valente.
“The main problem with plastic packaging is the amount we consume,” she explains. “We should switch from disposal to reusable.”
Such a move is proving a sticking point with plastic packaging manufacturers, whose livelihoods depend on the ‘chuck it away and start again’ model.
“There is a lot of resistance, a lot of scepticism,” says Valente. “It means manufacturers need new business models, perhaps by investing in logistics or take-back schemes to return packaging to producers.
“A lot of businesses aim for recyclability, but from an environmental point of view, it’s not the best option. Reusability has a much more positive impact.”
The chemists leaving no trace
The grim spectacle of plastic waste littering oceans and open spaces is depressingly familiar, and Hamburg-based startup Traceless say the solution is plant-based bioplastic that degrades in as little as a fortnight.
Not all bioplastics – plastics made from renewable biomass such as agricultural byproducts or wood, for instance – are created equal, and the term is by no means synonymous with environmental sustainability.
Traceless, however, has earned its green stripes with a bioplastic made from farming and brewing waste otherwise destined for the bin. It can be manufactured as rigid plastic packaging, or flimsy films for wrapping products.
Superior biodegradability means it breaks down into new plant nutrients in two to nine weeks, and can even be composted at home. And by using leftovers – or ‘second generation’ biomass – as their raw material, Traceless doesn’t compete with food crops for land.
The paper packaging popping plastic’s bubble
Surfing aficionado Sam Boex wants to see plastic supplanted by recycled paper after becoming dismayed at the glut of debris polluting our oceans.
“Anyone who spends a great deal of time outside is just more aware of the environment and how it’s changing with the demands of our society,” he says.
Boex’s answer is Flexi-Hex, a wraparound paper honeycomb that can be used to protect everything from glass bottles to electronics. Paper, he says, also lends a touch of class to premium products, citing the example of a surfboard purchase that proved to be his lightbulb moment.
Boex recalls: “I opened the box and there was a sea of bubblewrap. Coming from a product design background, I thought that for a product costing £500 there must be a way of creating a better consumer experience.”
Working alongside twin brother Will, he spent eight months developing Flexi-Hex, which – unlike plastic wrapping – is kerbside recyclable. “Plastics recycling is a bit of a murky area,” he says. “Much of what we think is being recycled isn’t at all…whereas paper and cardboard are very easy.”
The offsetting solution that’s stylish to boot
The Boex brothers would no doubt give a surfer’s high five to Gravity Wave’s clean-up effort.
The Spanish outfit has partnered with hundreds of fishermen on the Mediterranean sea to recover discarded ‘ghost’ fishing nets, which make up almost half the plastic pollution found in our oceans, take 1,000 years to decompose and are a death trap for marine life.
Repurposed with the help of Gravity Wave’s manufacturing partners, the nets are ground down and turned into striking pieces of furniture with a planet-saving purpose. Gravity Wave’s clean up activities also function as a plastic ‘offsetting’ mechanism for other companies – food delivery service Knoweats for example, which uses plastic takeaway containers.
“Ultimately, we’d like to see a reduction of plastic pollution in the sea,” says Gravity Wave’s Verónica Gutiérrez. “The future is to convert all our plastic waste into new products. We can recycle, give it a second life, and avoid using virgin plastics.”
Main image: Flexi-Hex