Is there life after plastic? The new inventions promising a cleaner world
2nd March 2018 | Recycling
Barely a day goes by without a new anti-plastic initiative: the Dutch supermarket with a plastic-free aisle: the Bali inhabitants sweeping the island for jetsam, the moves to get plastic out of teabags – and even out of Lego. And that was all just this week.
But can we – or should we – aim to move beyond plastics altogether? What are the alternatives to a material that has dominated packaging for 70 years? Promising new technologies are vying for attention, but plastic is so ubiquitous – and so useful – that it will not simply disappear.
Rob Opsomer, systemic initiatives lead at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation believes that 50% of plastic packaging could be recycled if they, or after-use systems, were better designed and 20% could be tackled by reuse schemes. However, about 30% of plastics need a fundamental rethink to prevent them ending up in landfill.
It’s a sentiment that is gathering pace, with small businesses, laboratory scientists, corporate giants and individual innovators scrutinising every aspect of the plastic problem, from product design to sophisticated new biodegradable bioplastics.
Among those exploring alternatives to traditional plastics is Jeffrey Catchmark, professor of agricultural and biological engineering at Penn State University, who is plumbing the potential of naturally occurring polymers. Among the team’s successes are waterproof coatings made from cellulose and chitosan – the latter a material made by treating the shells of crustaceans. Not only re these coatings compostable, and break down in the environment, but they offer other benefits since they also act as adhesives, making the recycled products even better than the virgin packaging.
“In fact [the waterproof coating] is completely compatible with the processes that the recyclers use to treat the paper pulp in order to prepare that for the next product that is made,” says Catchmark.
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