Dr. Anthea Blackburn, Senior Scientist at Econic Technologies summarises the development of recyclable packaging.
We are inundated with weekly news reports of shops replacing or removing entirely their use of plastic packaging. UK supermarket chains, such as the Co-op, recently announced they would be replacing carrier bags with biodegradable substitutes, Iceland has committed to removing black plastic trays with wooden alternatives, and Morrisons has introduced 100 percent recyclable brown paper bags for loose produce. In line with the UK Plastics Pact, nine major supermarket chains have pledged by 2025 to use only plastic packaging that can be recycled, reused or composted. These intentions are all commendable. They are all necessary. But, we should not confuse these actions with agreement that plastic is inherently bad. In fact, it serves its intended purposes very well. It is our use, manufacture, and end-of-life treatment of these materials that we should be addressing.
With the current state of our oceans and landfills, it is imperative that we act immediately to rectify our decades of incorrect plastic waste disposal. And we are. In 2016, recycling in the UK was 45.2 percent, up 4.2 percent from 2010. But, we are still well below the target of 50 percent by 2020. We are increasingly replacing single-use plastics, like bags and bottles, with reusable alternatives. Regardless of our choices, we must be careful that the changes we make in the plastics industry do not have a knock-on effect elsewhere in our environment. We should also be looking to address how plastics are manufactured.
There is currently a significant amount of work going into the development of alternative plastics derived from natural sources, for example, sugarcane or natural oils. From the point of view of replacing part or all the oil-based materials that plastics are typically prepared from, this approach offers a significant advantage in “greening” plastics, and potentially making them more readily biodegradable. These resultant plastics, however, often exhibit inferior processability and properties over their historical counterparts. Furthermore, the agricultural demand of obtaining these natural feedstocks in industrial quantities cannot be overlooked. What would be advantageous is a feedstock that does not place additional strain on our environment and that produces plastics that have comparable, or better, properties to those we currently rely on.
The use of carbon dioxide as a feedstock in plastic preparation is an option that provides a solution to both these requirements, as well as offering a viable means of utilising the abundance of this problematic greenhouse gas in our atmosphere. The use of CO2 as a feedstock in polymers for use in the plastic bags and bottles we most commonly associate with pollution is in relatively early stages of development, and is something that we at Econic are studying the effects of in collaboration with our partners. We can already confirm that in the initial systems every tonne of petrochemical feedstock replaced by CO2 means a further two tonnes are prevented from being produced. Looking ahead, initial property evaluation indicates that these CO2-containing polymers could offer significant increases in toughness.
We should not focus our efforts solely on completely eradicating single use plastics from our lives, sometimes this simply isn’t the best option. Instead, we should seek to use the potential of another harmful waste product, CO2, to provide alternative plastics with a favourable balance of advantages over impact… and whatever those new material solutions are, use them more wisely.