The problem of plastic waste has escalated over the last few decades to the point where it is now a global epidemic. Our plastic habitat has now reached such extremes that the equivalent of a garbage truck of plastics enters the ocean every minute of every day.
Why is plastic pollution a problem?
You will notice that plastic is everywhere these days, it is in almost all products and packaging across the world. This is with good reason, because plastic is a very useful material. It’s strong, it can be moulded into virtually any shape and most importantly it degrades very slowly.
It is this last character that is why plastic can also be so problematic. It virtually lasts forever without breaking down, meaning that when it gets into the ocean it is there to stay. New plastic that is added doesn’t replace old plastic, it adds to the problem further every time.
It is estimated that by 2050 there will be a higher percentage of plastic in the ocean than fish!
How does this affect wildlife?
Many negative impacts of plastic waste have been documented in the natural world. For example, seabirds have started to feed it to their chicks by accident, in a study 98% of chicks were found to have ingested plastic in some form.
Larger sea creatures such as Minke whales have been found with over 800kg of plastic in their stomachs, with scientists suggesting that the plastic was the cause of death for these creatures.
Plastics in oceans has also been found to spread disease. Scientists concluded in a recent study that if a coral comes into contact with plastic it increases their chance of disease by 89%.
How can we tackle this?
Buying less new stuff and consuming less will always be at the heart of any environmental issue such as plastic waste, and it is they best solution. However, we have to accept that we have reached a point where we need to also look to other solutions at the same time because plastic waste only seems to be increasing and if we are to limit the damage to marine ecosystems we need to look to innovation to give us a hand too.
These innovations can approach the problem from different angles. They can either look to provide suitable alternatives to the plastics and therefore reduce the need to produce them in the first place. Or they can look to utilise the waste plastics in a new product, giving it a second life and preventing it from ending up in landfills and the ocean. This second technique is known as the ‘circular economy’.
Here is a list of 10 innovative solutions to the global plastic waste problem:
1) Using it in road construction
Inspired by a trip to India where he saw litter pickers collecting plastic and then melting it down to fill potholes, Toby McCartney returned to the UK inspired. Firstly, he tried to do the same on his own road but not greeted with the best reaction he set out to find a way to utilise plastics in road construction in a safe way instead.
Toby founded the company MacRebur and after 844 failed trials they finally found a way to use single use plastic in road construction.
The way they did this in the end was by using it in the mix with existing bitumen materials. The advantages of this was not only does it lock away plastics and prevent them from reaching landfill or the ocean, but also it creates a stronger more durable road surface, thanks to the properties of the plastic itself.
The truly great thing is that MacRebur don’t use any plastics that can otherwise be recycled, they only use single use plastics that are destined for landfill and so they really are providing a second life for these materials and a circular economy solution.
2) Litteratti App
The finger is often pointed at the consumer for using too much single use plastic. But a lot of the time we aren’t even given a choice, the majority of items that line supermarket shelves are covered in plastic and it is hard to get the big brands to care or take responsibility.
Then we go for a walk in our local park and we see hundreds of plastic cups from a particular company everywhere we go, and a plastic bottle from another manufacturer somewhere else.
Previously we could perhaps pick it up and put it in the bin and do our bit, or maybe even moan at the offending brand on social media, but the problem just seems to continue regardless.
Jeff Kirschner also felt this pain and started posting pictures on Instagram of litter with the hashtag ‘litterati’. Other people started copying this and eventually it grew into a global movement. Jeff realised that there was huge potential in this, not only was it raising awareness and getting people to pick up litter but it was collecting huge amounts of photographed, geo-referenced data points on the issue.
Realising it was becoming too big for just an Instagram hashtag, Jeff set out to create the Literrati App. The app built on the simple idea of taking photos of litter and added some cool features such as AI which automatically identifies the brand and tags them.
So how does this tackle the plastic waste problem?
Firstly, it encourage people to pick up more pieces of litter from the ground by adding an element of fun and competitiveness to the process (you get points the more litter you pick up). Secondly, the huge amount of citizen science data can be used to take on the main offenders. They have already taken on the huge power of the tobacco industry and won in court thanks to all the data they collected on cigarette litter, and they are now turning attention to other culprits many of which are causing a lot of plastic pollution.
3) Biodegradable 6 pack rings
6 pack rings that are made of plastic are common across the world, used to keep 6 beers or other drinks together in a tight package.
These have become a symbol of the plastic epidemic, with images of fish and other marine life becoming trapped in the plastic circles created once the cans are removed.
E6PR are a company that have set out to eliminate this issue. Instead of using plastics, they created 6 pack rings from by-products of other waste streams and compostable materials. When disposed of correctly in a composting facility they will break down in a matter of days. But more importantly if they find their way into a landfill or into the oceans they will harmlessly break down in weeks.
The other benefit is that the material it breaks down into is harmless to the environment and wildlife. A major emerging issue, where the consequences are still not fully understood, is microplastics; microscopic bits of plastic that break off of larger plastic and are easily ingested, making their way into the food chain. This solution prevents that issue too.
4) Biodegradable plastics
Although it is still an issue, it’s harder to argue with the use of plastic for certain items that we expect to last a long time. A TV for example is usually made from plastic because it is cheap, can be moulded easily into the right shape and most importantly it lasts a long time (virtually forever) before it starts breaking down.
But there are thousands of applications of plastic where this property of never degrading is simply not required. Plastic is used for a few days or weeks and is then thrown away into landfill or burnt.
This has lead many companies to create ‘biodegradable plastics’ as an alternative. Plastics that will break down and not be left in the environment for hundreds of years.
One of my favourite examples of this is from company Mobius. They have created a biodegradable plastic to replace plastic mulch film, a commonly used plastic in horticulture used to cover crops over huge areas to prevent damage.
The best thing about this solution from Mobius is that they utilise an existing waste stream to make the plastics, creating a circular economy solution. This waste stream is lignin which is a by-product of the paper industry and which would usually be discarded or burnt.
5) Edible water bottles
Plastic water bottles have to be one of the most ridiculous forms of plastic pollution. Not only do the majority of places in the developed world now have clean drinking water from taps, there are also a growing number of refill stations and water fountains in cities where re-useable bottles can be topped up.
Every year in the United States alone, it is estimated that 50 billion single-use plastic water bottles are produced. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2010/3/why-tap-water-is-better/
There are a number of ways to tackle this problem. Firstly we must educate people to the impacts and provide easy alternatives to allow access to water in public spaces in towns and cities. Secondly, we must put pressure on the big brands that are producing all the waste in the first place. And finally, we must look to innovate to find new solutions.
One of these exciting solutions is the idea of an edible water bottle! As weird as it sounds start-up Skipping Rocks Labs has created a blob-like container made from sodium alginate, which is able to contain the water in a small pouch that can be ingested harmlessly.
The idea was taken from a process known as specification which was actually invented way back in the 1940s.
The technology has started to make appearances in the mainstream. This year it was used in the London marathon where instead of handing out plastic water bottles or cups, race volunteers instead handed out small edible capsules filled with Lucozade energy drink instead.
This technology has it’s limitations over plastic bottles but it is uses like this where it makes practical sense and can reduce single use plastic quite substantially.
6) Plastic Eating Mushrooms
With plastic still being produced at a rapid rate, we need to find a way to either give it another life or to break it down into less harmful products.
In 2012 a group of research students out of Yale University discovered a species of mushroom (Pstaslatiopsis microspora) from the Amazon rainforest that is capable of digesting plastic. Or more specifically, breaking down polyurethane into organic matter.
Following this discovery, tests were done on several other species of mushroom to see if a similar process took place, and to the amazement of the researchers they did, including oyster mushrooms which are commonly consumed across the world.
Further studies are currently taking place to see if these mushrooms can be safely eaten once they have digested the plastic, which would make a full circular economy model. Although it may be tricky to convince people to eat mushrooms that have come from a landfill site!
But even if we choose not to eat them, this is a great way of letting nature speed up the de-composition process of plastics which would otherwise take hundreds of years.
If you haven’t made an eco-brick yet, I encourage you to do so. The idea is that you stuff any single use plastics you use into a large 2 litre bottle until it is full. Once full and compacted as tightly as possible you have yourself an eco-brick.
Eco-bricking has turned into a global movement. Not only does it allow people to visually see how much single-use plastic they are using every day but it locks away the plastics and prevents them from entering the ecosystem.
These eco-bricks can then be put to us as bricks. Used to build structures from chairs to full houses! They are a cheap and strong material to build with and because plastic lasts virtually forever they can withstand many years in extreme weather conditions such as heat or rain.
In poor areas of Africa, for example, plastic is still everywhere, but people often can’t afford building materials, eco-bricks provide a temporary solution to both these issues.
8) 3D Printing Street Furniture
3D printing is a growing technology. It allows anyone (well anyone who owns a 3D printer) to download the plans for an item and see it printed in 3D plastic right in front of their eyes.
A group of students at UC Berkley have managed to find a way to use old single use plastic materials, melt them back down and then use the to produce useful items, rather than just letting them reach landfill.
This was taken to another level by the ‘New Raw Association’ who used the same process on a large scale to 3D print street furniture out of waste plastics. It takes 100kg of plastic waste to create just one of the street benches, but when we are talking about finding a solution to this waste stream, the more plastic it takes the better.
Inspired by joining a recycling club back in high school, Miranda Wang set her sights on solving the problem of plastic waste. She and co-founder Jeanny Yao set up a company called biocellection which aims to find a way of breaking down plastics.
They started from the view point that although plastics don’t look organic or natural, they are still made from carbon atoms. This means that there must be a way to break them back down into organic matter once again and return them to the earth or use them in new products.
The team found that there were certain bacteria that could do this, although it would take too long to make it a viable solution. So to speed up the process they took this theory and applied it to a chemical process to break down the plastics much faster.
Once the plastics are broken down, the end product can be utilised in many useful products.
10) Using it as fuel
Scientists in 2016 managed to find a way to break down polyethylene-based single use plastics into an ‘alkane’. This alkane product is more commonly known as diesel fuel. Around 55% of the plastics can be used as fuel, but the rest can be used to create other products and so it is all put to use.
Not all plastics are made from polyethylene so this only solves part of the problem. However, other start-up companies such as Licella in Australia have found a way to break down polystyrene (another huge waste stream) and make bio-fuels.
This solution can only be temporary however, as burning diesel fuels produces harmful greenhouse gases that are causing climate change. So although this is solving the issues around plastic waste it isn’t tackling all the environmental issues at play. Solutions such as this must only be used as we transition towards renewable energy.
Although many of these innovations give us hope that single use plastics can be kept away from landfills and the oceans, we shouldn’t forget that we should still be trying to reduce unnecessary plastic use wherever possible.
But the reality is that plastic pollution across the world is still a big issue that we need to solve quickly, and if innovation can help with this then we need all the help we can get.