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22 April 2024

Planet vs. Plastics

The theme of this year’s Earth Day is Planet vs. Plastics, with EARTHDAY.ORG calling for 60X40: a 60% reduction in the production of all plastics by 2040. Alexandra Seymour-Pierce takes a look at the problem of plastic waste and how innovators around the world are trying to solve it.

I’ve always been passionate about the environment, signing myself up to the Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace mailing lists at only 8 years old. Back then environmental news was all about acid rain and the hole in the ozone layer. Fast forward (almost) 30 years and it’s about plastics.

A 2017 study by Geyer et al. from the University of California Santa Barbara[i] estimated that 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic had been produced between the 1950s (when plastic was first introduced) and 2015. Of that, 6.3 billion metric tons was waste. When we talk about plastic and plastic waste, the public emphasis of many manufacturers and retailers is on recycling – whether the product is recycled and whether it is recyclable. However, despite the best efforts of consumers like myself, very little of our plastic waste is actually recycled. Geyer at al. found that only 9 percent of the estimated 6.3 billion metric tons of waste was recycled; 12 percent was incinerated and 79 percent ended up in landfills or the natural environment. With plastic production increasing year on year and an estimated 400.3 million metric tons of new plastic produced in 2022, the problem of plastic waste in the environment is only getting worse.[ii]

But why is it such a problem? Many of us are aware of the large scale collections of plastic waste on land and in the ocean. However, these are not harmless, if unsightly, collections of plastic. Plastics break down over time into tiny particles called microplastics (typically defined particles with a size of ≤5 mm). A 2022 WHO report found that these “[microplastics] have been detected in air, water, soil, food and beverages, indicating that exposure of humans to these particles is ubiquitous”.[iii] Indeed, microplastics have been found in the human heart, lungs and blood, as well as in the placenta and breast milk.[iv] Although the actual effects of such microplastics on human health are not yet known, microplastics do contain endocrine disrupting chemicals and “diseases related to endocrine disruptors … include Autism Spectrum Disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, obesity, Type 2 diabetes, infertility and cancers”.[v]

EARTHDAY.ORG, the founder of Earth Day, is unwavering in their commitment to end plastics for the sake of both human and planetary health. The theme of Earth Day 2024 is Planet vs. Plastics and as part of this EARTHDAY.ORG are calling for 60X40: a 60% reduction in the production of all plastics by 2040. The idea of waste reduction is not new to those of us in the UK, where the “Reduce Reuse Recycle” mantra is well known and oft repeated. It’s also the area where I think technology has the greatest role to play.

There have been some really exciting plastic reducing inventions over the last few years and inventors are coming up with new ideas all the time. Below, I take a brief look at some of my favourite inventions for tackling the problem of plastic waste in two key areas: packaging and clothing.

Packaging

There is no denying the convenience of plastic packaging. Therefore, a direct replacement for single use plastic packing would be a gamechanger. Some “compostable”, starch based, bioplastics (such as polylactic acid, or PLA) are already fairly widely available. However, these materials are typically only compostable in industrial facilities and, since they cannot be recycled with traditional plastic, often contaminate recycling batches.

One alternative is polyhydroxyalkanoate, or PHA, which is produced through bacterial fermentation. Beneficially, PHA is home compostable and breaks down in a similar manner to wood, though its biodegradable nature has raised some concerns about the integrity of the material for long term food storage.[vi] Although PHA production levels are currently lower than those of PLA, rapid growth of the use of PHA has been predicted and I suspect we will be seeing much more of it in the future, particularly for short term packaging needs e.g. takeaway food containers.

Seaweed derivates are another promising material. One company doing interesting things in this area is FlexSea.[vii] FlexSea was founded by two Imperial College London graduates and has developed a home compostable biomaterial that can replace plastic film packaging. According to their pending EP patent application[viii], the FlexSea bioplastic material comprises seaweed extract, water and at least four additives. The additives comprise a plasticizer, an antimicrobial agent, a gelling agent and an adjuvant, all of which can be of natural origin and may themselves be extracted from seaweeds.

The Magical Mushroom Company are also looking to nature, growing replacements for expanded and extruded polystyrene packaging foams from fungal mycelium and agricultural waste. Their Mushroom® packaging[ix] is produced under an exclusive licence[x] from Ecovative Design LLC[xi], one of the pioneers of mycelium technology and is fully biodegradable in around 45 days.

Clothing

Packaging is not the only place where the plastic problem occurs. Plastic is also prevalent in our clothes; this plastic enters the environment when we wear the clothes and when we do our laundry; it has been found that one polyester fleece jacket can shed up to 2g of microfibres during a single wash.[xii]

One young innovator, Fionn Ferreira, has found a way to remove microfibres that have already made it into the water using a ferrofluid (a mixture of oil and ferromagnetic powder) that can remove over 85% of microplastics in a single pass. The mixture encapsulates microplastic particles, separating them from the water, whilst the ferromagnetic powder allows the encapsulated microplastics to be removed with magnets. The plastics can then be separated out from the mixture and recycled and the ferrofluid can be reused. Since no chemicals are needed, the process can be safely used on drinking water.[xiii]

There are also products on the market to help prevent these microfibres from reaching the water system in the first place. The GUPPYFRIEND® washing bag[xiv] uses a thermoset plastic screen fabric with a mean mesh width between 5 μm and 200 μm and the washing bag is closed with a zipper “which is at least largely impenetrable for plastic fibres with lengths on the order of 100μm”.[xv] Whilst this bag keeps microfibres out of the water, the collected fibres do still need to be disposed of.  An alternative approach is the microfibre filters offered by PlanetCare, which fit to your washing machine outlet and filter the water before it enters the drains. Used filters can be returned to PlanetCare so that the microfibres can be collected and stored for use in subsequent products, such as insulation panels and the filters can be refurbished and reused.[xvi] The lifetime of each filter could potentially be prolonged by an interesting modification set out in their most recent patent application, which describes a manual filter bypass for use when the particles present in the washing water are not harmful to the environment but would quickly clog the filter, e.g. mud and sand (and, if your household is anything like mine, copious amounts of dog hair).[xvii]

Another way to avoid microplastics entering the water system through your laundry is to move away from synthetic fabrics. This is easier said than done, since synthetic fabrics are ubiquitous and so far no natural fibres have emerged as a serious replacement for the “performance fabrics” used in sports clothes, active wear and outdoor gear. However, one company pioneering natural fibre performance fabrics is Natural Fiber Welding (NFW).[xviii] NFW have developed a process in which a solvent is used to swell and mobilize natural fibre biopolymers and then electromagnetic energy is applied to heat (and thereby weld) the biopolymer. The process creates longer fibres with enhanced tensile strength and the morphological changes in the fibres can also alter their properties, e.g. the hydrophobicity.[xix] In this way, natural fibres can be transformed into performance fabrics with “synthetic-equivalent performance properties, such as abrasion resistance and moisture management[xx], whilst still being biodegradable.

EARTHDAY.ORG’s founders created and organized the very first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. Since then, EARTHDAY.ORG has been mobilizing over 1 billion people annually on Earth Day and every other day, to protect the planet. Join the movement at https://www.earthday.org/.

[i] Geyer, R., Jambeck, J. R., & Law, K. L. (2017). Production, use and fate of all plastics ever made. Science advances, 3(7), e1700782. See also https://www.universityofcalifornia.edu/news/83-billion-metric-tons-plastic-and-counting

[ii] https://www.statista.com/statistics/282732/global-production-of-plastics-since-1950/

[iii] https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/9789240054608

[iv] https://www.earthday.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/11/BVP-Report.pdf

[v] https://www.earthday.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/11/BVP-Report.pdf

[vi] https://www.food.gov.uk/research/alternatives-to-single-use-plastics-results

[vii] https://flex-sea.com/

[viii] https://register.epo.org/application?number=EP22705890&lng=en&tab=main

[ix] https://magicalmushroom.com/mushroom-packaging

[x] https://magicalmushroom.com/company/news/innovate-uk-15-11-2022,

[xi] https://www.ecovative.com/pages/our-story

[xii] Hartline, N. L., Bruce, N. J., Karba, S. N., Ruff, E. O., Sonar, S. U., & Holden, P. A. (2016). Microfiber masses recovered from conventional machine washing of new or aged garments. Environmental science & technology50(21), 11532-11538.

[xiii] https://www.epo.org/en/news-events/european-inventor-award/meet-the-finalists/fionn-ferreira

[xiv] https://en.guppyfriend.com/

[xv] https://register.epo.org/application?number=EP17701283&tab=main

[xvi] https://planetcare.org/pages/help

[xvii] https://register.epo.org/application?number=EP23776896&tab=main

[xviii] https://nfw.earth/clarus

[xix] https://register.epo.org/application?number=EP17771318&lng=en&tab=main

[xx] https://futurevvorld.com/fashion/patagonia-natural-fiber-welding-materials-partnership-clarus-mirum-plant-based-natural/