The plastic crisis. We’ve all heard of it. And whether it’s while throwing out the cup that your Activia yogurt came in, buying that plastic water bottle that you just had to in the airport, or watching a video of a turtle get stuck in the plastic rings of a Coca Cola packet, it’s likely that you’ve also felt a pang of guilt for using it.
But plastic is everywhere — every year, 8 percent of the petroleum used worldwide is used to produce plastic or to power the manufacturing processes, and not only does this in itself pollute the atmosphere, millions of metric tons of plastic land up in the ocean and landfills, year after year, too.
Our land, water, wildlife, and ecosystems are in danger, all because of the material that used to be seen as miraculous.
Although we’re all painfully aware of the distressing reality that plastic has already begun to mold (ok, maybe not the best time for puns), the unsurprising truth is that this doesn’t seem to be changing either.
Just last year, a study concluded that, if the world continues on its current course of ever-increasing plastic consumption, the amount of plastic waste being produced will triple by 2040.
But hey, with bioplastics, the future may not be so bleak — right?
Wrong… kind of.
As their name suggests, bioplastics are an eco-friendlier alternative to typical, petroleum-derived plastics. Bioplastics can be produced from a range of organic materials like corn starch, cellulose, protein sources, and other renewable substances.
What’s great about bioplastics is that they:
- Have a lower carbon footprint
- Don’t use crude oil
- Are non-toxic and versatile (in some cases)
- Are often biodegradable
But this isn’t new… in fact, some may even call bioplastics old news, given that the first man-made bioplastic was produced around the 1860s.
So if you’re like me, you may be wondering: why haven’t they already replaced all of our plastics?
That’s a good question, to which there are three main answers.
Why bioplastics aren’t there yet
1. Disposal + Environmental Concern
But wait… isn’t this the whole reason that we wanted to use bioplastics? Well, yes — but it turns out that, unless handled correctly, bioplastics can pose just as much of a threat to the environment as normal ones.
This is because most bioplastics do not readily decompose in a natural environment. In fact, even those that are titled “biodegradable” often require specific high-temperature environments to decompose, like industrial composting facilities.
If they are disposed of incorrectly and end up in a landfill (where they will be deprived of oxygen), bioplastic can release methane and shine their toxic light, just like food waste.
This can be very problematic because this limits the effectiveness of bioplastics solving the plastic problem to countries with the necessary infrastructure — which many, particularly those where plastic pollution is most, do not have.
2. The Difficulty of Living Up to Conventional Plastic
Unfortunately, there’s a reason that we use so much plastic. It’s cheap and effective, aka the recipe for perfection.
Take polyethylene terephthalate (or PET) as an example. PET makes up 97% of the U.S. market for plastic bottles and it’s what most food and drinks are packaged in. This is mainly due to PET’s properties: it’s highly strong, durable, lightweight, and doesn’t react with foods or allow for attacks by microorganisms.
While they are more environmentally harmful, the same good things can’t be said about many forms of bioplastics, as many of them don’t possess the favorable properties of traditional plastics. These weaker mechanical properties could include a greater water vapour permeability than standard plastic, being easy to tear, or being very brittle, for example.
3. The issue with crop dependency
With growing populations and climate change seizing thousands of acres of it, arable land is more valuable than ever. So you can imagine the issue with needing to use precious land (and resources) for “growing” plastic.
Ah, the ever-famous reason for which so many things are impossible.
Due to the complexity of their production, among other factors, the cost of bioplastics cannot compete with traditional plastics in most scenarios. This is exacerbated by the fact that oil prices are dropping.
As the former CEO of a company called Cereplast, who was once one of the biggest companies in the bioplastics game before declaring bankruptcy in 2014:
“People are somewhat conscious of the environmental impact of oil-based materials that will not biodegrade, but they are not willing to spend the extra dollars to push [new] types of materials,”
— Frederick Scheer
But wait, I’m not here to make you cry.
I want to talk about Applied Bioplastics.
Founded in 2018, Applied Bioplastics is tackling the plastic crisis from several different angles. With the company being centered around the transformation of sustainable biomaterial manufacturing, their mission is threefold:
- Supply Decarbonized Bioplastics
- Support Sustainable Agriculture
- Transform Industries
So just how do they do it?
In the eyes of Colin Ardern and Alex Blum (from left to right up above), the problem with bioplastics is that, on top of the expense, wide-scale adoption is unrealistic because of the impracticality of needing to alter manufacturing processes to produce more environmentally friendly products.
“Manufacturing it's already a low margin business, so forcing unwelcome change on that industry would drastically change the price and availability of the products that everyone on the planet uses”
— Alex Blum
That’s why they came up with an alternative to hard plastic (polyethylene/PP) that could compete directly with legacy plastics and integrate seamlessly with the equipment and machinery that is presently used in factories.
A plastic that is derived from non-food natural fibers! (Psst…it’s abundant, renewable, and organic)
In contrast to bioplastics that rely on organic matter derived from edible crops (which therefore compete with agriculture), Applied Bioplastics sources their ‘waste’ plant matter from farms abroad.
This means that they can not only produce a “drop-in” plastic in terms of both cost and method of production, but also contribute to the sustainable development of agricultural communities in emerging economies.
With their plastic, 50% percent of the carbon emissions are cut. Even more, one tonne of their plant-based polymer material avoids 500 kg of CO2 emissions and absorbs over 200 kg of CO2 by the plant material, due to the displaced petrochemical content.
While they are currently in the process of acceptance testing with several major corporations, in the future, they plan to have their technology gain adoption across the planet through the means of licensing.
We’re beginning conversations with major corporates that already do most of the world’s plastic production. We don’t want to take them out of business — we want to help them do what they do, but better, cheaper, and more sustainably.
While bioplastics alone cannot solve the problem, I’m eager to see how Applied Bioplastics does on their goal of transforming the perception of bioplastics from “expensive and uncommon” to “inexpensive and ubiquitous” — and if you are too, here’s the link to their website, where you can sign up for updates!