Though widely maligned and criticised, plastics are not only here to stay – they’re also essential for our future, says UK sustainable plastics expert Dr John Williams whose company is about to launch what it claims is a bio degradable plastic. He will headline the 2017 Seminar Series at the Australasian Waste & Recycling Expo in Melbourne next week on the topic, “The Future of Packaging is Circular”, which will focus on how designers, retailers and waste managers can disrupt the status quo and provide sustainable packaging fit for a new plastics economy.
In recent times, there’s been a wave of uninformed calls to ban plastics and use alternatives. But here’s the thing: plastics are the most functional materials we’ve ever invented and our dependence on them is such that we would literally struggle to live without them.
As expected, reactions to these types of statements have been mixed. The fact is we’re not very good at disposing of plastics – and have given little thought into what happens after we stop using them. But this shouldn’t be a reason to discontinue using such versatile and essentially life-changing materials.
Next generation of plastics: 100 per cent recyclable, 100 per cent biodegradable and non-toxic
On an international level, what we need to do is move towards the adoption of more intelligent and sustainable materials. These are materials that are not only designed for front-end functionality, but also for back-end circular economy principles of recovery.
To this end, Aquapak is about to launch a plastic that’s 100 per cent recyclable, 100 per cent biodegradable, and non-toxic. The upside to this polymer is that it has all the credentials and properties of a conventional plastic, but its end-of-life behaviour is somewhat different. The material is a specially formulated PVOH (Polyvinyl alcohol) based system in pellet form for thermoplastics processes. Unlike “cast” PVOH, there is a wider range of applications and properties.
In essence, you can recycle it, recover it, and get it to dissolve. It’s also biodegradable by nature of its chemistry and will biodegrade if it’s in the form of a lightweight film or multi-laminate. It’s also compostable and will go through an anaerobic system.
Crucially, two universities have undertaken tests that prove this plastic won’t do any harm to a marine environment. For example, they conducted tests on water fleas, lobsters and other marine life, which proved to be harmless both in macro form and in solution form.
International shift needed
Traditionally, there has been little serious thought given to what happens after plastics’ primary function has been achieved. So the development of new sustainable plastics represents a critical facilitator in the drive towards a much-needed international shift to safer, more environmentally friendly iterations.
The future of plastic is not only about increasing front-end functionality – we also need to start thinking about what kind of plastics we have to adopt in order to allow better recyclability, recoverability and disposability.
Plastic packaging sector to be the early mover
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. That’s not to say it will be a quick process.
It will be a tough challenge because we will be effectively trying to turn around the super tanker of conventional plastics. But it can happen. Inevitably it’s about introducing this material to as many applications as possible.
Greater awareness about what we are trying to achieve will come through ongoing promotion of developments through the traditional channels and social media.
Ultimately, the economic and social cost for industries and companies opting not to embrace a sustainable plastics future will be considerable.
Brands want to make money, but they also want to be seen as leaders in sustainability. If they do nothing, clearly they will face a backlash from NGOs and consumers, which could have a negative effect on share values and levels of investment.
There are always challenges to the introduction of a disruptive technology but the world is changing. We need new materials for the planet to continue to benefit from emerging technologies but we also need to couple it with sensitivity around environmental matters. Plastics are brilliant materials but we need options after primary use.
We can be hopeful that at a minimum, the strong economic drive to adopt new plastic technologies will be the catalyst needed for a sustainable plastics future.
Dr John Williams is business development director for British technology company Aquapak Polymers Ltd. He is a chartered chemist and industrial technical director and an expert in technologies for renewable materials. Dr Williams was Head of Materials (renewables) for a UK government body for seven years.