en
    10 ways to rethink plastic through technology

    rethink sustainability

    10 ways to rethink plastic through technology

    To protect our natural capital and achieve net zero, we must figure out how to reduce plastic pollution. The United Nations recently took an important step towards that goal, as negotiators agreed on a roadmap for a global treaty on plastic pollution that would address the issue at the design and production stage1. Technology will be a key enabler of this mission, as we look for ways to consume less, recycle more, and clean up the plastic pollution we’ve already created.

    Here are 10 ways to rethink plastic through technology.

    Technology will be a key enabler…as we look for ways to consume less, recycle more, and clean up the plastic pollution we’ve already created

    1. Next-gen water resistance

    The UK alone uses around 2.5 billion disposable cups each year, most of which include a thin layer of water-resistant plastic that must be separated from the paper in specialist facilities before the cup can be recycled. As a result, only about 0.25% of these discarded cups are recycled2, with the rest ending up in landfill. Now, though, novel technology could make easily recyclable paper cups a reality. For instance, Finnish company MM Kotkamills has developed a new water-based, plastic-free coating that makes paperboard naturally resistant to liquids, which it uses to produce disposable cups and food packaging that can be easily recycled along with other paper waste.

     

    2. Reinventing packaging

    Most toothpaste tubes are essentially plastic-and-aluminium sandwiches. But while this makes for a squeezable toothpaste tube, the fusion of plastic and metal is impossible to recycle through conventional means, resulting in billions of empty tubes being sent to landfill each year. In an effort to tackle this challenge, toothpaste giant Colgate focused on High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE), which is widely recycled yet too rigid in its usual form to be used in squeezable tubes. Following a five-year development process, Colgate managed to find the perfect combination of grades and thicknesses of HDPE laminate, resulting in the world’s first recyclable toothpaste tube – a technology that Colgate has made freely available to its competitors.

     

    3. Next-gen bioplastics

    Bioplastics are a vital tool for reducing our dependence on petroleum-based plastics. But to make these biodegradable alternatives economically attractive, we need innovations that will reduce the cost of producing bioplastics while making them suitable for use in more applications. One such pioneering technology is AggiePol, a bioplastic platform from British company Teysha Technologies derived from renewable, sustainable, plant-based feedstocks that can be physically, mechanically, and chemically tuned for specific applications. Even AggiePol’s degradability can be tuned to ensure that it’s robust enough to survive a given use case before breaking down as quickly as possible should it end up in the environment.

    Bioplastics are a vital tool for reducing our dependence on petroleum-based plastics

    Read also: How can we tackle plastic pollution? 10 solutions for a greener future

     

    4. Genetic modification

    Alongside bioplastics, using genetic modification to alter the properties of natural fibres such as hemp and flax is increasingly enabling them to be used in place of petroleum-based plastics. One example is Flaxstic from Canadian company Open Mind Developments, which combines plant-based biopolymers with flax straw that is often burned as waste. The result is an eco-friendly alternative to plastic that also provides farmers with an additional source of income.

    5. Digital watermarks

    Since different plastics require different recycling processes, maximising recycling rates and the quality of recycled plastics requires consistently accurate sorting that can be difficult to achieve in practice. HolyGrail 2.0, a project driven by the European Brands Association (AIM), aims to address this challenge by proving the technical and economic viability of digital watermarks for plastic packaging. These watermarks would carry information about the kind of plastic from which the packaging is made – invisible to the human eye, but not to the scanners recycling centres would use to accurately and automatically sort the various plastics into the appropriate recycling streams. With the project now counting over 160 companies and organisations among its members, HolyGrail 2.0 has the potential to revolutionise how we recycle plastic packaging.

    Since different plastics require different recycling processes, maximising recycling rates and the quality of recycled plastics requires consistently accurate sorting that can be difficult to achieve in practice

    6. Depolymerisation

    Plastic packaging is often made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which, on paper, is highly recyclable. However, recycling PET packaging often requires special infrastructure to remove its colour and food contaminants, a challenging process that isn’t available in much of the world. In practice, then, only around 15% of PET packaging makes its way to recycling plants, with the rest being incinerated, dumped in landfills, or escaping as plastic pollution3. Now, though, Dutch startup Ioniqa has developed a groundbreaking technology that uses a magnetic catalyst to break down all kinds of PET plastic at the molecular level to remove colours and contaminants. This process – known as ‘depolymerisation’ – simplifies PET recycling by removing the need for complex infrastructure and produces pure, food-grade PET plastic that even meets the standards of consumer goods giant Unilever, Ioniqa’s first partner.

     

    7. Catalytic hydrothermal reactors

    Another revolutionary innovation that could help us recycle more plastic is Mura Technology’s catalytic hydrothermal reactor: HydroPRS. This technology uses supercritical steam to break plastics down into their original constituents, which can then be used to produce virgin-grade plastics and other materials. Crucially, HydroPRS can recycle all waste plastics, even those currently considered to be unrecyclable. Mura aims to open its first recycling plant in the UK this year as part of its overall ambition to have one million tonnes of annual plastic waste recycling in operation or development by 2025.

    Even when recycling is possible, the high temperatures required can make the processes involved difficult to decarbonise in the sector’s quest to achieve net zero

    8. Modular recycling

    Even when recycling is possible, the high temperatures required can make the processes involved difficult to decarbonise in the sector’s quest to achieve net zero. In a new approach to plastic recycling, Canadian company Pyrowave has developed an electric, modular recycling system that breaks plastics down into their basic constituents using microwaves. With the high decarbonisation potential of electricity, Pyrowave’s invention may turn out to be an important milestone in the recycling sector’s net-zero efforts.

    Read also: What are our top tips to reduce plastic pollution?

     

    9. Digital upcycling networks

    Manufacturing and construction companies are some of the most prolific producers of plastic waste, amounting to over a million tonnes a year in the European Union alone4. To help these companies sustainably and cost-effectively manage their waste, the Denmark-based Upcycling Forum is a network that connects them with design companies that buy these plastics and turn them into products from furniture to lighting. By enabling more plastic waste to be reused without having to go through the recycling process, businesses like the Upcycling Forum can help deliver a more efficient circular economy.

     

    10. Plastic capture

    Despite our best efforts, plastic pollution in our waters is certain to continue increasing for the foreseeable future. And with many plastics taking hundreds of years to decompose, it’s vital that we find innovative ways to remove them from the environment and protect our natural capital. One such method is to repurpose existing technologies, as Greek company New Naval has done with its CLEAN TRASH system. Using technology the business originally developed to clean up oil spills, CLEAN TRASH uses mesh barriers to collect plastic at river mouths and direct it to a floating cage from which it can be removed before it can enter the ocean. By deploying these and other pioneering technologies, we can help restore the environment and protect our natural capital for future generations.

    To protect our natural capital and achieve net zero the time for technological innovation around plastic pollution is now

    A growing challenge

    Despite increasing awareness around the challenge of plastic pollution, we are continuing to make the situation worse. According to the United Nations5, plastic currently comprises around 85% of marine litter and is projected to triple as an absolute amount by 2040 as we continue adding 23 - 37 million tonnes of plastic pollution to our oceans each year – about 50 kg per metre of coastline. To make matters worse, greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) from plastics are projected to increase from 1.7 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent (CO2e) in 2015 to around 6.5 gigatonnes CO2e in 2050 – 15% of the GHGs we can emit annually while limiting global warming to the goals of the Paris Agreement. To protect our natural capital and achieve net zero, then, the time for technological innovation around plastic pollution is now.

     

    * Any reference to a specific company or security is made for illustrative purposes only and does not constitute and should not be taken as an investment recommendation to buy, sell, hold or directly invest in the company or securities.

    https://www.reuters.com/business/sustainable-business/exclusive-un-plastic-treaty-tackle-production-packaging-design-draft-resolution-2022-02-28/
    2 House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee (2018). ‘Disposable Packaging: Coffee Cups’.
    3 Das, S. (2018). ‘How breakthrough technology could significantly reduce plastic waste’, UnileverUSA.com.
    4 Solar Impulse Foundation (n.d.). ‘Upcycling Forum’.
    United Nations (2021). ‘Plastic pollution on course to double by 2030’.

    Important information

    This document is issued by Bank Lombard Odier & Co Ltd or an entity of the Group (hereinafter “Lombard Odier”). It is not intended for distribution, publication, or use in any jurisdiction where such distribution, publication, or use would be unlawful, nor is it aimed at any person or entity to whom it would be unlawful to address such a document. This document was not prepared by the Financial Research Department of Lombard Odier.

    Read more.

     

    let's talk.
    share.
    newsletter.