Against a backdrop of over 300 million tonnes of worldwide plastic production annually, with some plastics taking 400 years or more to break down, the planet is facing a significant crisis of plastic pollution. The vast and growing oceanic “plastic islands” are a stark warning that a change in our attitudes towards single-use plastics is required. By 2050, it is estimated that the world’s oceans will contain more plastic than fish.
The European Union (EU) Strategy for Plastics has been launched with aims of revolutionising the design, use, production and recyclability of plastics. The strategy is part of a wider EU effort to transition towards a “circular economy”, to help us use resources in a more sustainable way.
It's easy to see the transition towards sustainability as a cost on our economy. New products and processes for their production involve costs of both time and money to develop and implement. However, the changing public attitude towards unsustainable dependence on resources presents an opportunity to those ready to take advantage.
Innovative companies are developing new technologies to help tackle the EU Strategy and these are producing results. As Europe increasingly transitions towards sustainable plastic solutions, these companies are poised to increase market share and profit from their innovations.
New technologies include the development of novel polymeric materials with unique biodegradable and compostable properties. Such materials reduce the environmental impact of plastics by ensuring that they break down after use and do not add to the oceanic plastic islands. These materials can be implemented in a number of areas, from coffee cups, coffee machine pods, bottles and straws, to name but a few.
Other approaches are directed to novel processes for the production of plastics materials. These utilise biologically derived feedstocks, such as plant matter, coupled with innovative enzymatic or catalytic chemical processing steps, to generate polymeric materials efficiently and at high yield. The renewable nature of these feedstocks weans us of our dependence on traditional non-renewable feedstocks, such as oil, thereby reducing our environmental impact.
Yet other approaches focus on existing plastic pollution and methods of breaking it down. Worm species that are capable of digesting commonly-used plastics, such as polyethylene (which is commonly used in products such as plastic bags and drinks bottles), have recently been discovered feeding off our existing plastics waste mountains. These are posited to be useful in tackling the waste piles contaminating our environment.
This approach is at an early stage: a single worm can break down only 1 microgram of polyethylene over 12 hours. However, research here is focussing on the digestive enzymes used by these worms. Future technologies could include genetic modification of microbes to enable efficient enzymatic production. Once produced, the enzymes can be set to work tackling plastic waste.
Protecting key players in the industries supporting our fight in the Strategy for Plastics is essential. With the growing plastics issue already at crisis levels; securing longevity, protection and defence of innovations will enable these key players to remain gamechangers in this industry.