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Startups Look for Alternatives to Plastic Packaging.

Traditional plastic, especially disposable plastic packaging, may soon be a thing of the past. Pressure is mounting to take a new tack on plastic packaging--not only to increase recycled content but also to find viable alternatives. Part of that pressure stems from waste disposal complications and the shrinking pool of petroleum feedstock supplies, but consumer concerns over climate change and vast, floating plastic garbage patches in the oceans have helped push the issue to the forefront. And now governments are stepping in, imposing fees or outright bans on plastic bags and single-use foam products. Loath to be left behind, businesses are joining the fight, signing on to initiatives such as the UK Plastics Pact.

Launched in April by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), the pact has already drawn commitments from nearly 100 businesses and organizations; signatories have pledged to eliminate unnecessary single-use plastic packaging and to make 100 percent of their plastic packaging reusable, recyclable, or compostable by 2025. WRAP CEO Marcus Gover calls the UK Plastics Pact "a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rethink and reshape the future of plastic." The goal, Gover says, is to hang on to all of plastic's benefits but "curtail the damage plastic waste wreaks on our planet."

Other initiatives are also emerging. In June, a nonprofit shareholder advocacy group, As You Sow, urged four multinational consumer-product companies--Nestle, PepsiCo, Unilever, and Procter & Gamble--to step up their efforts to cut plastic packaging. As You Sow's initiative, signed by 25 major investors, includes a call for annual disclosure of plastic packaging use.

A few large companies have already jumped on board. Dell has announced a goal of making all its packaging suitable for consumer recycling or composting, IKEA is working to phase out single-use plastic packaging and switch to recycled materials, and McDonald's has pledged to make all its packaging from recycled or renewable sources by 2025. These efforts are often driven by consumer demand: Francesca DeBiase, chief supply chain and sustainability officer for McDonald's, told the BBC in January that customers' top requests focused on packaging: using less, sourcing it responsibly, and taking care of it after use.

But it will not be easy to kick the plastic habit. "Plastics are the workhorse material of the modern economy--with unbeaten properties," said Martin Stuchtey, a longtime advisor to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, on the foundation's release of a 2016 report, The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the Future of Plastics. Plastic packaging comes in films or rigid shapes, and in options ranging from transparent to opaque, all of it stable across a wide temperature range. Plus, the material's light weight reduces transportation and handling costs. All those benefits make plastic, in Stuchtey's words, "the ultimate single-use material."

Plastic's durability is a huge plus during use, but it creates big problems in the long run, resisting decay in landfills and crumbling into microscopic fragments that "leak" into the landscape, find their way into remote habitats, and, often, are ingested by animals. Some types of plastic, such as PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottles, are more easily recycled than others, but plastic recycling rates overall are extremely low. The New Plastics Economy report estimates that only about 14 percent of all plastic packaging is recycled worldwide; another 14 percent is converted to energy in incinerators.

Bioplastics derived from agricultural products offer one alternative to petroleum-based plastics, one that could alleviate pressure on fossil feedstocks, but they currently make up only a small fraction of global plastic production and aren't yet cost-competitive. Furthermore, they are made mainly from corn, sugarcane, and other food crops, diverting resources that would otherwise feed people, potentially creating a new resource issue down the road. That could change if production ramps up, but for now bioplastics aren't up to the task of replacing plastics on their own. More ideas are needed.

The search for those new ideas will create new economic opportunities along with environmental benefits, Dame Ellen MacArthur said at the launch of the Plastics Pact. Several startups and research spinoffs, all taking different approaches to replacing traditional fossil-based plastics, are looking to cash in on those opportunities, tapping agricultural waste, seaweed, shrimp and crab shells, and even airborne carbon emissions to create sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based plastic.

Newlight Technologies, for instance, is recycling carbon emissions into replacements for polypropylene, polystyrene, and thermoplastic polyurethane. The company bills its AirCarbon plastics as carbon-negative from cradle to grave. Dell and The Body Shop are among the California company's packaging customers. To make AirCarbon plastic, the company places bioconversion reactors at agricultural digesters, landfills, energy facilities, and water treatment plants; the reactors combine captured carbon with hydrogen and oxygen to create the patented plastic. After the polymer is removed from the reactor, it's purified and processed into pellets that can be extruded, thermoformed, injection molded, or blown or cast as a film.

Ecovative Design, headquartered in Green Island, New York, grows its water-resistant MycoFoam packaging from a base of agricultural waste and mushroom roots, or mycelium; the packaging is grown in the desired shapes. Standard products include corners, boxes, and bottle shippers, but MycoFoam also can be molded into custom shapes. In the company's proprietary process, rice husks, wheat chaff, corn stover, and other agricultural wastes are cleaned, mixed with mycelium, and pressed into molds to grow for six days. Once removed from their growing trays, the shapes are dried in industrial kilns to kill the mycelium so they stop growing. MycoFoam takes 30 days in the presence of soil and water to decompose.

UK-based Woolcool's packaging for perishable food and drugs starts with wool--a renewable, reusable, and compostable material. Woolcool replaces polystyrene shipping containers with cardboard boxes combined with insulated liners made of felted wool. Wool's strong insulating properties mean shippers need fewer ice packs to maintain temperature. Drop the ice packs, and the wool liners can keep warm food warm. Paired with ice packs, a pharmaceutical version of the packaging, LifeGuardian, holds products at 2-8[degrees]C (35-46[degrees]F) for up to 72 hours. Temperature is at least as critical for drugs as for food; according to a 2017 Packaging News article, packaging failure makes nearly half of all vaccines unusable after shipping.

Another promising area of research is edible packaging for food, which can cut plastic waste while improving food safety. While hygiene concerns require an outer layer not intended for consumption, individually wrapped items inside--soup packets that dissolve in hot water, for instance, or cheese slices--could take advantage of edible packaging. Skipping Rock Labs in London produces spherical, single-use water and juice containers made from Ooho, a plant-based bioplastic. Peel off the biodegradable outer layer, then drink. The gelatinous double membrane can be flavored or colored. Over the summer the company tested a sauce sachet version with a fast-food restaurant partner. The compostable packages decompose within six weeks.

Other work under way in research labs around the world is focused on creating edible food wraps and protective sprays made from combinations of cellulose, milk proteins, vegetable skins, chitosan from shellfish shells, and more.

Indeed, food packaging is ripe for innovation, not only to reduce plastic use but also to cut down on spoilage. Spoiled food would be a far bigger problem without plastic packaging, but there's still plenty of room to improve. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that spoilage accounts for a large share of post-harvest food waste. Interaction with oxygen is a key factor--and unlike starch-based bioplastic films, which are more porous, some protein-based films can block oxygen even more effectively than plastic. Peggy Tomasula, a US Department of Agriculture research leader, is working with casein, or milk protein, to produce wraps that are up to 500 times better than plastic at keeping oxygen-related spoilage at bay. A spray version could replace sugar coatings used to keep cereal flakes crispy in milk or coat pizza boxes to repel grease.

Other innovators are looking to combine ecologically friendly plastic replacements with other innovations designed to extend shelf life, such as active packaging, which incorporates additives that release antioxidants, antimicrobials, or oxygen scavengers. The Smart Materials group at the Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia in Genoa published a paper in July describing a material made of a blend of ethyl cellulose, food-grade silicone, and clove oil. The silicone improves water resistance, and the clove oil inhibits pathogens.

The New Plastics Economy report estimates that without adjustments, our current plastic habit will more than triple its consumption of global oil production by 2050 and, in that same time frame, put more plastic in the ocean by weight than fish. Ultimately, said Erik Solheim, head of the UN Environment Programme, in a report released earlier this year on single-use plastics, "Plastic isn't the problem. It's what we do with it. And that means the onus is on us to be far smarter in how we use this miracle material." New kinds of packaging, and new ways of producing, using, and disposing of it, will help solve the world's plastic problems.

Renee Stern, Contributing Editor

Renton, Washington
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Comment:Startups Look for Alternatives to Plastic Packaging.
Publication:Research-Technology Management
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Nov 1, 2018
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