A future without plastics may be a nice thought for some but it’s not going to happen, writes UK sustainable plastics expert Dr John Williams.
Plastics have been widely maligned and criticised for years but getting rid of plastic bags and containers is not going to happen – they are here to stay.
There’s no doubt some of the criticisms are valid, but can you imagine a world without plastic? How would the healthcare sector cope? It is a heavy user of plastic medical devices and components that protect workers and patients from contamination.
The same applies to the food supply chain where plastic packaging protects produce from bruising or perishing as it is transported from the farm to its ultimate destination.
In recent times, there have been calls to ban plastics and use alternatives. And while it’s a fact that we are not very good at disposing of plastics, that should not stop us from using them. However, it is clearly unacceptable to just bury plastics in the ground and forget about them.
One of the issues is that as we make smarter plastics for different applications we create a more complex problem once those plastics become waste. Most of the world’s plastic is not recycled, even in countries with advanced waste management. In the world’s poorer countries where there is no waste management, plastic can build up in the environment, blocking drains, killing livestock and when burnt, releases toxic smoke.
What we need is intelligent plastics that can be recycled, reused or decomposed. These plastics will not only be designed for front-end functionality, but also for back-end “circular economy” principles of recovery.
The circular economy is an alternative to the traditional “make, use, dispose” linear economy of old. Instead resources are kept for as long as possible and the maximum value is extracted from them while still in use. The products and materials are then recovered and regenerated at the end of their service life.
Our team at Aquapak Polymers in the UK is researching sustainable plastics development and is are about to launch a new flexible plastics line that is in keeping with the circular economy principles. The new plastics we’re developing are 100% recyclable, 100% biodegradable and non-toxic. They have all the credentials and properties of a conventional plastic, but the end-of-life behaviour is different.
The material used is a specially formulated PVOH (polyvinyl alcohol) based system in pellet form for thermoplastics processes. PVOH is a flexible and dissolvable plastic that is used in laundry liquid pods and surgical stitches. Unlike cast PVOH, there is a wider range of applications and properties. This means you can recycle it, recover it and get it to dissolve.
When it comes to the inevitable widespread adoption of sustainable plastics, the plastic packaging sector – rather than areas such as medical, automotive or aerospace – will likely be the early movers. Plenty of packaging companies are on board with our new plastics and we are hopeful that the strong economic drive to adopt new plastic technologies will be the catalyst needed for a sustainable plastics future.
But that’s not to say the move to sustainable plastics will be a quick process. I believe change will happen in the next five years, but ultimately the economic and social cost for industries and companies opting not to embrace a sustainable plastics future will be considerable, particularly as they face a backlash from shareholders and investors.
I am optimistic that consumers will embrace and adopt these new plastics options. There are always challenges to the introduction of a disruptive technology but the world is changing. There is a definite need for new materials for the planet to continue to benefit from emerging technologies but the environmental effect of them needs to be considered.