Rather than change how the world uses plastic – a difficult, perhaps impossible task – innovative engineers and entrepreneurs are trying to solve a different puzzle: what if plastic came from harmless ingredients that decomposed naturally?
Welcome to the world of feedstock: industry lingo for the fodder used to create plastic. The typical plastic feedstock is by-products from the oil and gas industry. They’re handy because they’re cheap, plentiful, and they create plastic that is moldable and durable. You never have to worry about your plastic wrap suddenly dissolving around your sandwich when it lasts forever.
But what’s good for your sandwich is not necessarily good for the marine environment. If plastic bags dissolved harmlessly into the ocean, rather than drifting around like jelly fish, sea turtles would stop eating them and dying a slow painful death when the plastic blocked their digestive tracts.
Sea lions would no longer get tangled up in plastic packaging straps. Sperm whales would stop feasting on plastic they can’t digest. This is the real-world difference biodegradable plastic could make if it went mainstream.
Alternative feedstocks have to be better (read: cheaper) if they have a hope of replacing fossil-fuel plastic. The best brains around the world are coming up with some pretty wild replacements.
“What’s good for keeping your sandwich fresh and tasty is not necessarily good for the marine environment.”
In Iceland, product-design student created an algae-based bottle that holds its shape when full and biodegrades when empty. In Indonesia, inventor Kevin Kumala dissolved a cassava-based plastic bag in warm water and drank the strange brew on camera to prove that, not only is his plastic biodegradable, it’s edible, too.
In California, Newlight Technologies has spent the last decade perfecting a plastic made from methane – one of the worst greenhouse gasses to go atmospheric.
The company’s founder came up with the idea after reading about the hundreds of quarts of methane cows fart every day. Newlight traps methane on farms, at landfills and water-treatment plants. They recently signed a 10-billion-pound production deal with IKEA.
Researchers at Egypt’s Nile University and the UK’s University of Nottingham created an eco-friendly plastic out of chitin, a material in shrimp shells. Egypt doesn’t have the resources to support plant-based plastic, but its food industry pumps out a surprising amount of shrimp shells.
Next-generation plastic often comes from two sources: plants, like sugarcane, wood and even mushrooms, and what would otherwise be called garbage, things like methane, shrimp shells and even human waste (hopefully not for water bottles). This is great news – blast the trumpets! Unroll the flags! But hold on a minute, say the critics. There are still a few kinks to iron out.
Food-based plastic sounds like a good idea environmentally, but on a humanitarian level is it ethical to use sugarcane and cassava for plastic in an age of rising food insecurity? Waste-based plastic seems like a win-win for the environment, but skepticism lingers around whether it truly disappears in the ocean.
So, what about disposing of these brave new plastics? Many bioplastic products claim to be compostable or biodegradable without mentioning the fine print: they have to be processed in a high-heat, aggressive industrial-composting facility. If they find their way to such a place – great! If they end up in the ocean instead – who knows?
Creating ocean-friendly plastic is far more challenging than it seems on first blush, but the best and brightest are on the job. Until that perfect product arrives, let’s get creative in hacking plastic out of daily life.