Wonder Material Plastics
Plastics when it was discovered in the 1950’s have been named as a wonder material, but of late has developed a perception of being the biggest pollutant on earth. Its attributes are so versatile that the word has become ubiquitous enough to become a verb in itself.
While wood and metals have a much longer history, plastics that were discovered recently in the history of mankind single-handedly changed the face of consumption, because of attributes that other materials lack even today. Its versatility to be shaped from a micro-thin film to a strong structural member is the biggest attribute. The availability of plastic became easier because of the easy source of crude oil and its effect on making plastics cheap. Listed below is the list of physical and commercial attributes that make plastic the wonder material which it is rightly labeled as;
|Low Density||Hence can be light, float on water|
|Strength||High strength to weight ratio. Can be used as load-bearing members instead of metals|
|Weather Resistance||Can sustain different weather conditions from moisture to high temperatures. Resistance to corrosion and Chemicals|
|Fire Resistance||Low fire resistance|
|Durability||High Durability because of surface hardness|
|Dimensional Stability||Can maintain shapes|
|Chemical Resistance||Can resist chemical corrosion and low toxicity|
|Thermal Resistance||Low electric and Thermal Conductivity. Hence can be used as heat and chemical insulation|
|Working Conditions||Easy to fabricate and Can be drilled, sawed, punched, clamped etc.|
|Flexibility||Can be as thin as a film|
|Ductility||Low- Can break or creep under load|
|Colours||Various colours can be induced into the material itself|
|Transparency||Can be as transparent as glass|
|Shapes||Various shapes can be achieved through moulding|
Low Price leads to single use and high discard
As plastic films, bags and even footwear are cheap they end up being used once and then discarded on land. Because of their lightweight and poor life cycle management by societies, 80% of the waste reaches oceans and the balance gets buried in landfills. Around 8 million tons of this discarded plastic reaches the ocean every year and at this rate as per the World Economic Forum will weigh more than the fish in the ocean.
The following five single-use plastics are the most commonly found products and packaging littering the North American coastline.
- Food wrappers
- Bottle caps
- Beverage bottles
- Plastic bags
- Staws and stir sticks
Long Durability means no Biodegradability
Plastics are a long chain of carbon-carbon bonds made by catalysing a monomer called propylene, a component of petroleum. Normal monomers are simple chains and can break down easily the way they are used up in fuels, but polymers because of the process of catalysation form very strong bonds and long chains. These strong bonds, while they are inert, will take millions of years to break down as there is no natural way or microbes which can break them down. Because of this persistent nature, they end up in the digestive tracts of animals, and chemicals like bisphenol-A (BPA) and phthalates which are used as additives in its manufacturing leach into ground or water sources from garbage landfills.
Alternatives to plastic
|Environmental Degradation in the production cycle||Low||High||High||High||High|
|Cost of Production||Low||Low||Low||High||High|
|Cost of Recycling||Low||Low||Low||High||High|
|Life of product inside packaging made of||High||Low||Low||High||High|
The whole value chain of manufacturing alternatives of plastic-like glass, fibre, and paper are also nature de-grading as well as high power-consuming processes. The manufacturing process of glass causes silica-related health issues in workers. Plastic both virgin and recycled if used for long has carcinogenic properties and can be harmful to the user, but this can be avoided by using higher quality plastic where the bonds are tighter, and they don’t use BPA as additives. In some cases, banning plastic may be a solution but a substitution for plastic with other material can be worse than eliminating plastic. For example, substitutes like glass can cause higher carbon emissions, paper can cause substantial forest degradation and water loss, and poor packaging substitutes might have larger food losses. So plastic substitution should be seen as environmentally sustainable across the value chain rather than just at the level of the substitute. Cotton bags have to be used at least 400 times to compensate for the water drawn in making cotton, the energy required to spin, and the fuel required in logistics before its ecological footprint can be matched to an equivalent plastic bag; the only advantage being the fabric bag can be returned back safely to nature at the end of its lifecycle.
Reduce, Reuse and Recycle
The whole consumer economy which drives plastic consumption has been looking at ways to reduce the plastic spread by looking at areas to reduce, reuse and recycle.
Circularity is a concept that has been pushing for reduced consumption across the world, especially in high-consuming nations. Advising consumers to rent instead of buy, choosing items that can be re-assembled, repairing instead of discarding, and trying to push the agenda that it can be a business opportunity. This idea also pushes the point that we should eliminate stuff like plastic straws and cutlery which we can live without.
Reuse is actually a contra idea to the whole model of capitalist economic growth spawned by consuming more. Reuse of packaging material, shifting to glass for reverse logistics and multiple-use products like bottles are pushed in the reuse idea.
Recycling is a big business opportunity which I would like to talk about in this article for three reasons;
- Plastic has its advantages in many spaces and cannot be clearly substituted at this point in time
- With increased awareness, consumers will push towards intelligent disposal of waste, especially plastic waste. Businesses will build in the cost of recycling into their business models as both consumers and regulations will push them to be responsible.
- Businesses will build in the cost of recycling into their business models as both consumers and regulations will push them to be responsible.
Sustainability and environment-friendly startups which are looking at the dangers of plastic as a business opportunity are slotted in the Recycle space. Recycling of plastic has multiple limitations;
- Difficult to recycle items like clothes, hangers, grocery bags, and toys.
- Recycled plastic cannot become clear and transparent
- Recycling tougher material consumes more energy, hence is inefficient and loses its price advantage, thus losing the aim of the circular economy to keep materials at its highest economic value.
- If waste is used to convert into fuel or electricity it can be used only once, and these materials are permanently lost from the economic cycle. Fresh virgin plastic must be generated to replace this loss.
The Good Plastic Company has the technology to recycle 70% of different types of plastics. This is because plastics are of different varieties and recycling 100% of them is virtually impossible. This Dutch company converts recycled plastic into decorative panels for usage in walls and furniture. The panels are made from a single type of plastic and not from different varieties enabling them to be recycled more easily in the future. They advocate localised recycling and hence their machinery is designed to be put up closer to the recycling location.
Novoloop started off as Biocellection primarily because of its use of the chemical technique of breaking down polymers into monomers which can be then recombined to create polyester-based thermoplastic polyurethane branded as Oistre™. While the output is a sustainable product that can be used in footwear, fashion and apparel, consumer electronics, automotive, and additive manufacturing, the more important idea in this startup is the usage of post-consumer plastic waste like Polyethylene, 100 million metric tons of which is produced every year.
Newtechpoly has the intellectual patent, called Polywaste Technology, to recycle a wide variety and combination of contaminated film, semi-rigid, and rigid plastics. Most of the other recyclers use manual or semi-automated techniques to segregate the plastic waste into the ones which their manufacturing process can break down. Polywaste thus can take low grade, low value, waste along with all forms of contamination saving on sorting, cleaning, and washing before melting and converting into a homogeneous mixture. The final product is sold under the name ewood.
Renewology is an MIT incubated technology laboratory with the sole purpose of developing solutions to landfill-bound waste. They have developed a solution that reverses plastic, which they call advanced recycling, to its basic molecular structure from where it can be converted into feedstock for petrochemicals. Renewlogy started recycling plastics back to feedstocks for plastic production in November 2019. Their model is to innovate on technology that can be sold to recycle machinery manufacturers and processes.
RAYS ENSERV has developed the technology and put up prototype factories to effectively demonstrate that non-recyclable plastic waste can be converted to fuel. While conversion into fuel is a loss of the plastic from the economy, yet Raysenserv’s process converts this waste into sulphur and other heavy metal-free fuel which is environmentally much better than regular fuels.
Cycled Technologies, a Norwegian startup, provides AI-Powered Recycling Solutions namely a smart bin and a mobile application. By combining consumer incentivisation with self-sorting technology, the bin, and the app helps connect clean and sorted recyclables to recycling facilities. Sorting recyclables takes care of manual labour involved in sorting as well as helps the recycling process by providing the same quality raw feed to provide an output that can be recycled multiple times. The mobile application helps waste collectors create a wallet to collect CycledTokens, which can be redeemed for prize draws.
Recyclan not only creates jobs in seven countries of Africa but does it both ethically and helps waste recycling in poorer nations a profitable venture. They help collect, sort, clean using simple mobile apps and SMS. These apps are used to incentivise the collectors with access to health insurance, sanitary towels, and school fees in exchange.
MacRebur is a company that has developed a large-scale bitumen mix. MacRebur products are used as binder extenders and /or modifiers to reduce the volume of bitumen required in an asphalt mix, at the same time enhance or maintain asphalt performance. The mix not only helps in reducing the usage of fossil fuels but also ensures that plastics are used in the productive filling process rather than occupying unwanted landfills. With each km of road laid using these products, an equivalent weight of 740,541 one time using plastic bags is consumed. 1 tonne of MacRebur mix contains the equivalent of 80,000 plastic bottles.
Scrapo, is the true internet first startup in this space and the world’s largest plastic recycling marketplace. It has around 50,000/- registered businesses across 150+ countries, buying and selling plastics. It has converted a low-level item into a global commodity. Founder Abbasov says that the company’s team personally visits the seller’s sites, verifies their identities, inspects the materials, supervises the loading process, and assists with the logistics. “We have also integrated an escrow payment system in the platform so that if all goes well with the deal, the seller receives the payment as soon as the material is shipped,” Abbasov says. “We want to make recyclables trading as easy and secure as buying a book on Amazon.”
Plastics as a material have such diverse uses that complete elimination from usage seems virtually impossible unless an alternative material with similar properties but easily decomposable is discovered. But the pressure on reducing the toxicity caused because of plastic waste will only increase given the environmental challenges the globe is facing. Of the businesses working on Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle, recycling businesses have immense growth opportunities.
While in the recycling businesses converting waste to recycled plastic is seen as much more productive recycling, I believe that given the volume of plastic discarded, businesses that convert them to economic usage in bulk like road construction and those used as bulk fillers have a huge upside. Macrebur founded in 2016 has raised 5 million USD to date. Given the investments in roads across the world, there can be enough volumes for companies similar to Macrebur worth investing in.
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