We, as a species, have experienced the stone age, the bronze age, the iron age, and now we’re living through what some have coined the plastic age. Plastic production may only have taken off comparatively recently in around the middle of the 20th century but has become so ubiquitous that it may well end up being the material that defines us for generations to come.
The appeal of plastic as a manufacturing material is easily understood. It’s cheap, durable, mouldable, lightweight, can be produced in many colors and endless shapes, and doesn’t corrode. No wonder then that we’ve produced approximately 8.3 billion tonnes of it since 1950. Around 6.3 billion tonnes of this is now considered waste. Unfortunately, only around 9% of this has ever been recycled. The rest has either been incinerated or sent to landfills.
This mountain of plastic waste is a significant issue for human and planet health. The non-biodegradable plastics contaminate both land and sea and release toxic chemicals when incinerated. As plastics break down into micro-plastics, they become ingested by almost every living species, and we still aren’t aware of quite how damaging this will prove to be long-term. So clearly, something needs to be done. Enter technology.
Here we’ve highlighted ten tech-driven solutions tackling the burgeoning crisis.
1: Smart nano-tech packaging
The attraction of plastic for packaging is partly due to its water resistance. Card and paper are viable alternatives in many cases but have historically relied upon thin plastic films to make them waterproof, for example, in the production of takeaway cups. Nano-tech coatings can now be sprayed onto card and paper to make them water-resistant yet still allowing them to be pulped and recycled, as well as imparting anti-microbial properties onto them.
2: Genetically engineered natural fibers
Natural fibers such as jute, hemp, and flax have long been used in the textile industry. Genetically engineering these materials allows them to develop properties that make them suitable for replacing single-use plastics such as straws and plastic shopping bags. Increasing yields, as well as making the fibers stronger and more water-resistant, are just some of the ways genetic engineering can make a difference.
3: Nano-technology enhanced metals
Aluminum has long been used as an alternative to plastic in the packaging industry, most notably with canned foods and drinks. Nanotechnology advancements from Purdue University have enabled researchers to produce higher-strength and lighter-weight aluminum by altering the microstructure of the metal. This will widen the range of uses for aluminum as a packing product, which is important as it’s much easier to recycle than plastic.
4: Chemical recycling
While the ideal solution would be to eliminate plastic entirely, we can ensure that what is being produced today is more biodegradable and easier to recycle. Traditional plastic recycling is a mechanical process that requires sorting, melting, and remolding plastics. The issue is that each time this is performed, the plastic produced is of a lower grade and eventually needs to be disposed of.
The alternative is chemical recycling which works on a molecular level to break down the plastic, enabling it to be reproduced at a much higher quality and with far less waste.
5: Biodegradable polymers
Cutting-edge technology from a Dutch company has resulted in biodegradable polymer production from second-generation feedstocks. These polymers, called polylactides (PLA), are biodegradable and come from lactic acid derived from sugar beets, sugar cane, and corn. These polymers have a range of uses across the packaging and textile industries, but the process is currently expensive, so government support is required to develop the technology and improve the economies of scale.
6: Nanocellulose development
Plastic PET bottles are a massive source of landfill waste. We consume over 500 billion of these bottles every year, the vast majority of which are not recycled. Green Science Alliance from Japan has developed a biobased composite called nanocellulose which could replace PET bottles and be put to use in myriad other industries. It’s derived from natural biomass, meaning it’s biodegradable and easily recyclable, and it’s also inexpensive. The transparent nature of nanocellulose paper makes it a viable alternative material in the electronics industry due to its optical properties.
7: Breaking down PET
At the moment, only around 15% of PET production gets recycled. The process of collecting and sorting plastic is difficult due to insufficient and inadequate infrastructure. Until we can eliminate PET production entirely, we have to find solutions to better manage the waste. A Dutch company, Ioniqa, has developed a magnetic catalyst technology that can break down PET at a molecular level, increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of the recycling process.
8: Taking recycling up a gear
The problem with many plastic packaging products is that they often contain other materials, which makes recycling them extremely challenging. Toothpaste tubes, for example, are usually made with a layer of aluminum coating plastic tubes. Colgate has adopted HDPE technology to produce tubes entirely from plastic, which is still not ideal but allows them to be recycled up to 10 times which significantly reduces plastic waste. This material is also found in other packaging such as milk cartons and has the potential to extend the lifespan of plastic products to up to 200 years with appropriate recycling treatments.
9: Tracking ocean plastic from space
Ocean plastic waste is a global problem on an incredible scale. One nonprofit organization, The Ocean Cleanup’ is embracing technology to help rid our oceans of plastic. It’s estimated that over 5 trillion pieces of plastic currently make up vast garbage patches in our oceans, so The Ocean Cleanup is utilizing satellites and machine learning to track these patches and coordinate the clean-up efforts.
10: Usage of Disruptive Digital Platform
"As humans, we’re so powerful when we come together - It only takes a few hundred people to literally change the world.” These are the words of Milkywire founder Nina Siemiatkowski. Milkywire is a digital platform designed so that individuals can make a positive impact on the planet right from their smartphones. The platform features vetted nonprofits working towards the four UN Biosphere Goals, including some that directly clean the oceans we rely on for fish, oxygen, and removal of carbon from the atmosphere. Individuals can support these nonprofits through the uniquely transparent digital platform that is disrupting the charity industry. Get involved through Milkywire.