With the numerous environmental, climate and health hazards that fossil fuel based energy and materials bring to our societies, we are now facing times that challenge the whole humanity to change the way we produce and consume.  Materials should eventually be based on renewable sources, waste should be minimized and recycling of products and materials maximized.  This is a major challenge, but a lot of good stuff is happening already, thousands of companies have realised that the new era of materials brings enormous business opportunities for innovative players.   Solar is getting cheaper and investments already outrun fossil options in some countries, electric cars are coming and a lot of research is focusing to replace petrochemical materials with renewable options.

 

We have all heard that oceans are facing a growing hazard from continuously increasing amount of plastic waste.  According to United Nations, almost 13 million metric tons of plastic is dumped annually into oceans , a full load of truck every minute.  The scientists tell us that you can find microplastic in the air that we breath, the tap water that we drink, the sea salt in our food, the beer we consume, and of course in our body too.   The microplastics are very small pieces of plastic less than five millimeters long and they together with larges pieces of plastic waste can be harmful to our ocean and aquatic life.  Dead whales and birds with stomach full of various plastics have been found already for some time.   What the consumption of microplastics means to our health, we do not know.  It is challenging for the science to find out, because people who have not consumed microplastics are hard to find. 

 

”Life is plastic, it’s fantastic”, was sung by a Danish-Norwegian pop-band Aqua in its world famous song called Barbie Girl in 1997.  At that time the plastics had conquered the globe for some decades already, but the production volumes were not peaked, this was just the prelude.  Half of the total volume of plastics produced have been manufactured during the last thirteen years!  The mass production of plastics started in the fifties and we have produced over 8 billion metric tons (8 000 000 000 000 kg) of plastics so far.  This amount weighs as much as 25 000 Empire State Buildings!  And none of this mass is biodegradable or compostable, it still exists somewhere, or rather everywhere. 

 

However, more and more people realize that they need to change their way of consumption and as soon as novel concepts, such as Cuantec´s, are ready they will choose the better option.  The challenge though, for novel products is that you need to make them a lot better or a bit better and cheaper than current options.  This is how the market works and for success you really need to be innovative.

Dr Anu Harkki

 

 

Recycling. Love or loathe it, it’s a government initiative which is here to stay. And in the most part, it is a wonderful thing. But then we come to the thorny issues of plastic recycling. Look at most plastic bottles in your day to day life, and you’ll see the recycling symbol. That’s a good thing, right? Sure, by recycling the materials we are reducing demand on the raw materials – crude oil and virgin plastic. But recycling is only effective with consumer compliance, and can only be done a finite amount of times.

 

Looking at just one type of plastic, polyethylene terephthalate (PET) as an example, let’s look at the pros and cons of continuing to use petrochemical based plastics in food packaging.

 

Cons

 

The production of this material involves the use of toxic and potentially toxic chemicals. Phthalate esters have been shown to be possible endocrine disruptors – chemicals which act like hormones in the body and can interfere with normal male and female hormone production, as well as causing potential damage to the foetus and may be linked to some cancers.

 

The production process of PET involves the use of antinomy based catalysts, such as antimony triacetate or antimony trioxide. The element antinomy is not dangerous, but when it becomes a compound, and particularly in the case of antinomy trioxide, then the material may be carcinogenic.

 

Acetaldehyde and formaldehyde are produced during the process. Both materials are hazardous to health in high concentrations.

 

 

 

Pros

 

The material is accepted by the food industry and relatively cheap

 

 

 

It is worth noting, that to recycle PET to be able to be reused for food, complete depolymerisation is required, which not only produces the chemicals listed above, but also requires vast amounts of energy to perform this depolymerisation. This seems like a lot of hassle to go to for a material which will probably end up being discarded anyway…

 

As I mentioned at the start of this blog, recycling is a fantastic scheme. And even recycling plastics is better than single use then discarding to landfill, but the use of traditional petrochemical plastics is unsustainable – and just because we have always used a material, there is no excuse to continue its use if that material is known to be a danger to health. It truly is time for a change. Time to switch to sustainable, renewable bioplastic based packaging.

 

 

 

Dr Ryan Taylor