Rethinking Plastic

Cheap, malleable and light plastic may be but it sure exacts a huge price on our environment. Weaning humans off plastic is not about banning plastic, but using plastic more intelligently and finding useful alternatives.


The Plastic Crisis

Since plastic was first used as Bakelite – a heat-resistant synthetic material made from phenol and formaldehyde – just over 100 years ago, it has paved the way for many inventions that have dramatically improved our lives. Radios, transistors, plexi-glass in planes, nylon for parachutes, moisture-proof cellophane, computers and a host of consumer goods have improved safety and raised incomes, health and nutrition standards.

The tide has now turned as the age of plastic has brought on a global crisis. Environmentalists estimate there are 5 trillion pieces of plastic floating on and in the world’s oceans. That is about 150 million tonnes of rubbish. By 2025, says the World Economic Forum (WEC), for every one tonne of plastic picked up in the ocean, there are three tonnes of fish. But by 2050, the oceans will have more plastic than fish.


The Limits to Recycling

Recycling is a complicated solution as not all plastic is created equal – and not all plastic is recyclable. The first issue is how to break down the plastic waste into more manageable products for recycling. Different resins require different conditions to be present before they can be broken down. Consumers may be keen to recycle but the specific levels of heat and humidity are not always present, resulting in a confusion and disillusionment. This article explains why, contrary to what is commonly believed, your Starbucks cup, dirty plastic cutlery and melamine plates are not as recyclable as consumers like to think.

Furthermore, recycled plastic is usually used to make lower-quality products such as outdoor benches – which can still be around for hundreds of years. Until scientists can show that such recycling generates less carbon and uses less water than the original manufacture of the plastic, the jury is still out on whether recycling on such a scale is environmentally responsible. In Africa, India and even in Scotland, some enterprising souls have also taken to sorting plastics and mixing them with sand or crushed rock to turn plastic into roof tiles, pavement tiles and roads. In California, a company has taken to using PET bottles to recycle them into food-grade feedstock for making plastic bottles for huge food manufacturing, thereby improving their environmental protection credentials. There is also huge pressure on the plastics industry to ensure that plastic is used responsibility.

The WEC reports that 8 million tonnes of plastics makes its way to the world’s oceans each year. Just 10 rivers of the world bring 90 percent of the river-based plastic waste, say the industry-based Alliance to End Plastic Waste. Some 95 percent of plastic packaging, costing between $80 and $120 billion annually, is for one-time use only. The carbon-intensive production process is also competing with our needs for a finite resource. Some 6 percent of global consumption is devoted to making plastic, the equivalent of what the global aviation sector consumes. Recycling rates for plastic are abysmal. It is just 14 percent, compared with paper (58 percent) and aluminium or steel (70 to 90 percent).

The damage of indiscriminate plastic waste to the ecosystem cannot be overstated. As consumers take a negative view of the issue, governments and industry have to act to rethink how to prevent plastic pollution, reduce and recycle plastic. Efforts to ban the use of single-use plastic in Singapore eateries and in the European Union


Compostable Plastic

In response to consumer demand, BASF, one of the world’s leading chemical companies, has created certified compostable biopolymers, ecoflex® and ecovio®. Ecovio® is the only certified compostable biopolymer worldwide that offers the functional performance of a standard plastic, and it is used in food packaging. When it is no longer needed, BASF certified compostable biopolymers are consumed by microbes along with bio-waste in industrial composting facilities. It has been noted that more needs to be done as more of such facilities need to be built to deal with the composting of plastics. Cut Plastic Waste

At BASF, one the world’s leading chemical companies, there are ongoing efforts to prevent the waste of plastic used on large-scale infrastructural structures, such as marine oil spill barriers in the sea to prevent oil spills from spreading and damaging shorelines.

Also known as containment booms, the barrier is a heavy-duty debris and oil spill containment barrier. Designed for long-term use with little maintenance, the boom is meant to float in the water and contain oil while spill recovery is underway. The orange barrier fabric is usually made of woven polyester that is reinforced with polyurethane to safeguard against abrasion and tear. The fabric can also be weakened by prolonged UV and hydrocarbon exposure. BASF engineers uses additives called light stabilisers to reduce the damage, and prevent plastic waste as the barrier ages.

Another use of plastic additives is the reinforcement of building materials such as roofing sheets in the construction sector. The demand is driven by the need to improve the chemical, physical, and mechanical properties and the performance of the plastic material that they are added to. Functions include reducing oxidation, preventing static charge, improving flame retardation, enhancing biodegradability and so on.

As demand for the cheap, flexible and light-weight plastic grows for the automotive sector, the global plastic additives market is projected by BusinessWire to be worth over $51 billion by the year 2021.



New Automotive Industry Demands

In fact, the automotive industry has moved forward aggressively to invest in new technology to reduce the use of plastic parts; and to create parts made from recycled plastic.

For example, Volvo Cars has debuted the XC60, with a tunnel console made from renewable fibres and plastics from discarded fishing nets and maritime ropes. The carpet is made with fibres made from PET plastic bottles and a recycled cotton mix from clothing manufacturers’ offcuts. The seats has PET fibres from plastic bottles. In addition, used car seats from old Volvo cars were used to create the sound-absorbing material under the car bonnet. Going forward, the brand wants at least 25 per cent of the plastics used in every newly launched Volvo car from 2025 to be made from recycled material.

“Extensive recycling and reuse of plastic is vital to our efforts to turn the tide on plastic pollution,” said Erik Solheim, Head of UN Environment. “Volvo’s move to integrate plastic waste into the design of its next fleet of cars sets a new benchmark that we hope others in the car industry will follow. This is proof that this problem can be solved by design and innovation.”


Enter A Brave New World

The plastic crisis has sparked interest in new technologies to create compostable packaging as an alternative to plastic. US company Ecovative Design is using fungus to create packaging that binds together organic matter like agricultural byproducts and wood chips. The result is a durable and biodegradable composite. There is also research underway to use the technology in 3-D printing, such that you can “print” your own biodegradable furniture, too. Other alternatives include seaweed, sugar cane and casein, as this article describes.

Retailers like IKEA have started to use the new alternative packaging material, and announced it will change from styrofoam to Ecocradle packaging which degrades within weeks.

More retailers with a similarly progressive mindset will be demanding alternatives to plastic and Styrofoam. As consumers turn from indiscriminate use of plastics, industry has to step up to the demand for ethical and environmentally sustainable alternatives. With a commitment to R&D and education at large, we can help

Helena Ma brings with her a wealth of experience and a truly cosmopolitan perspective, having lived and worked in Shanghai, China; Gothenburg, Sweden; and London, UK. Her stints in Europe and China has armed Helena with a potent blend of ancient Chinese wisdom and contemporary Western knowledge which she incorporates into business management and client project