Back to the future as innovators seek plastic alternatives


When Belgian chemist Leo Baekeland invented Bakelite in 1907, it was hailed as “the material of a thousand uses”. The production of synthetic plastics took off over the coming decades but now that the environmental cost of these miracle materials is becoming ever clearer, the hunt is on for more sustainable alternatives.

Some of this innovation has focused on bioplastics: polymers that are obtained from a renewable feedstock including agricultural wastes, vegetable fats and oils, corn starch and other ingredients. Bioplastics can be created from polylactic acids (PLAs) made from sugars extracted from plants, or from polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs) engineered from microorganisms.

recent report estimated the global market for bioplastics could be worth US$35.5 million by 2022. However, the jury is still out on the full environmental cost of bioplastics: not all bio-based plastics are biodegradable; industrial composting is often needed to break down bioplastics; and there is much public confusion about how to deal with them after use. They can also cost more to produce than oil-based plastics.

There are other concerns: some experts fear land may be diverted from food production to grow materials for bioplastics, which also use up fertilizers and water. Some bioplastics release methane when left to degrade in landfills, and they can also contaminate recycling processes.

A UN Environment report on adopting alternative materials noted that biomass-based polymers show great potential if they are used in closed-loop systems. “Their promotion as a ‘greener’ alternative is unjustified in the absence of the effective provision of industrial composting or anaerobic digestion facilities,” it said.

The hunt for alternatives is pressing. To tackle marine pollution, as highlighted by the UN Environment’s Clean Seas campaign, we need to find new ways of designing and reusing the plastics we cannot do without.

Hoping to inspire pioneering minds, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation ran a US$1 million Circular Materials Challenge to unearth the best designs for materials to replace the packaging used for sauces, fresh coffee and snacks.

Among this year’s winners was a team at the University of Pittsburgh who used nano-engineering to create a recyclable material to replace complex multi-layered packaging that is unrecyclable. The team made packaging from layers of polyethylene, which is easy to recycle, and reproduced the qualities of other plastics by changing the nano-scale structure.

These successful innovators demonstrate the kind of out-of-the-box thinking that UN Environment hopes will abound at next March’s fourth UN Environment Assembly. The motto for the meeting is: think beyond prevailing patterns and live within sustainable limits.

UN Environment highlighted some revolutionary ideas in its alternatives-to-plastics report, which focused on three categories: natural fibres from plants and animals; biomass-based, compostable, synthetic biopolymers; and re-usable, durable, non-plastic materials. The aim was to inspire businesses, entrepreneurs and researchers by providing concrete examples.

Here are some other innovative solutions:

  • Designers Vlasta Kubušová and Miroslav Král have created an all-natural plastic alternative made from corn starch, sugar and cooking oil. Nuatan is said to be safe enough for fish to eat, lasts up to 15 years, withstands very high temperatures and is biodegradable. The designers, who worked with the Slovak University of Technology, are searching for collaborators to reduce high production costs.
  • The Chinese Academy of Sciences says scientists have developed a polyester composite that reacts with water and decomposes, leaving small molecules that cause no pollution. The work was carried out by researchers looking to develop biodegradable plastics that naturally-occurring microbes could decompose into carbon dioxide and water. The researchers added water-soluble and hydrolysable compounds to a biodegradable polyester.
  • Dell Technologies has developed bamboo cushioning to replace foam in its boxes and has also made packaging with wheat straw produced from agricultural waste and mushrooms. This eliminated 9 million kilogrammes of packaging and reduced energy, water, transportation and production costs, while also reducing emissions.
  • Researchers at Sweden’s Lund University have developed a thermoplastic made from potato peelings and water that can biodegrade in nature within two months. Potato Plastic makes compostable cutlery, straws and salt bags by heating a mixture of hot water and warm potato starch, pouring the liquid into a mould and putting it in a fridge to set. The potato starch is taken from peelings from fast food outlets, or potatoes deemed unfit for sale in supermarkets. The design, by a student from Gothenburg, was shortlisted for the James Dyson Award.
  • In Florida, Saltwater Brewery uses by-products from beer brewing to make six-pack rings from wheat and barley that can be safely eaten by marine wildlife. The rings are biodegradable and compostable as well as edible.
Photo by Saltwater Brewery
  • L’Oréal was recognized at this year’s Awards for Packaging Innovation for its Seed Phytonutrients shower-friendly paper bottle made from 100 per cent recycled post-consumer paper. The inner plastic bottle is also made from 100 per cent post-consumer recycled plastic with 60 per cent less plastic than a comparable sized rigid container. L’Oréal partnered with Ecologic to create the bottle.
  • United Kingdom startup Skipping Rocks Lab came up with Ooho, an edible packaging for liquids made from seaweed extract. The startup says the sustainable packaging degrades in a natural environment in six weeks on average and the proprietary material is cheaper than plastic. The company has won a number of awards including the 2016 UK Energy Globe Award.
  • NatureFlex is a range of bio-films developed by Futamura and based on wood pulp from managed plantations. The films use novel heat seal resins on each side and are suitable for industrial and home composting.
  • French company Lactips has developed a patented thermoplastic packaging from casein, the protein found in milk. The plastic, made from milk that is unfit for human consumption, is used for laundry pellets but the company wants to expand into the food industry. It is water soluble and biodegradable.
Photo by Lactips

In its alternatives-to-plastics report, UN Environment noted that the overall aim of research and innovation should be to reduce society’s dependence on the unnecessary use of plastics, especially from fossil fuel sources.

“Potential solutions will need to take account of regional and local differences in the social, economic and environmental circumstances. It is important to foresee and eliminate unintended consequences; for example, putting at risk food security or affordability by using staple food crops such as cassava for non-food uses,” it said.

It might surprise Baekeland and those early inventors, who spent so long trying to dream up long-lasting synthetic alternatives to nature’s bounty, but many of today’s innovators are returning to nature as they seek solutions for some of our planet’s existential challenges, including plastic pollution.
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