How to deal with the state of plastic

A conservationist approach

With the exception of some market bags, China has promised to be plastic-bag-free by 2022. (Plastic Bag Production Line, SW China. Photo Credit: Zhangzj Cet, Creative Commons)

In the world of supermarkets, plastic packaging forms the frontline between your food and the outside world. The plastic itself, on a molecular level, is chaotic like a contentious border crossing. Gases forming your food’s flavor profile are trying to get out; moisture is trying to get in. At every turn, chemical reactions that ramp up in the presence of light, heat, or pressure are threatening to upend the food’s integrity. For the humans expecting tight border control between food and environment, the plastic bottle, bag, or wrap is the wall and border patrol in one.

These cross-migrational forces encourage plastic makers to add defensive agents to many types of food packaging. Some of these added defenses, such as films, adhesives, barriers, and stabilizers, raise health concerns, for example, bisphenols (used in plastic bottles) and PFAs (no longer made in the US). On top of that, additives used in converting plastics from one form to another, such as phthalates, can break down over time and leach from the packaging to the food within. These are found in plastic #3 — so consume with care. In large quantities, none of these compounds is very healthy, but most people in the field of plastics will tell you that the quantities aren’t large enough for concern.

On the plus side, additives can also prevent unhealthy mold from forming or chemical migration from contaminating food. Mineral oils, for example, can migrate from recycled paper. The demands on packaging are severe. We want freshness and flavor, but we don’t want label ink. And so in many cases, additives have become a lesser of evils.

In my previous article on what to do about plastic, I looked briefly at compostables. Even compostable and biodegradable plastic food packaging will necessarily contain some of these added ingredients. As author Gosia Wozniacka pointed out, “compostable” doesn’t necessarily mean “healthy.” And it doesn’t mean easy. Along with the strict requirements to earn the “compostable” certification come strict process demands. And that means a high carbon footprint is baked into the packaging long before disposal.

How many activists does it take to make plastic go away?

Though we generally think of gas tanks and automobiles when we think of fossil fuel, some of the biggest demand for petroleum products can be found in the thousands of varieties and uses of plastic. Despite heavy research on this problem, the most versatile feedstocks for making plastics come from fossil fuels, and very few plastic substitutes, including compostables, are made entirely without petroleum.

The chain of events between something in the ground and something wrapped around your cola can be a very long one. At every step, there are trade-offs among the many desired goals around making sustainable, non-polluting products. The time and funding in plastics research is spread out all along the chain. Plastic research working on the end of the chain tries to reduce plastic waste or increase compostability. At the other end of the chain, researchers want to increase the plastic’s desired properties while reducing the percentage of fossil fuel feedstock. And in between, the industrial heating or cooling involved in forcing molecules to break apart and recombine all adds up to more hydrocarbon byproducts released into the atmosphere.

Every little bit counts

With innovative a plastic wraps, such as the Israeli-developed TIPA, we can see how complex successes can be. TIPA’s developers began producing the wrap commercially through a small startup focused on high-performance and high compostability. “High performance” refers to all the demands we put on packaging. Rugged enough to transport, flexible enough to custom wrap — the list is long. TIPA gets good grades for high performance, and as a compostable it reduces waste. (And it must be industrially composted, in other words, it can’t just be thrown on the ground). At the same time, TIPA’s exceptional properties of flexible, dependable packaging come at the cost of increasing carbon footprint in material processing.

This is the push-me pull-you dilemma that has been going on since the first grocery clerk asked, “Paper or plastic?” Passionate environmentalists as well as fossil fuel proponents are quick to dismiss half-measures as wasted idealism. But right now, with governments seized in power struggles and corporations addicted to short-term profits, idealism may be the only driver of alternative research.

TIPA is able to respond to a consumer demand for movement in this research. It’s a demand and response loop that can only energize innovation as each product provides prodding for legacy plastics producers as well as competitive goals for smaller successive products. Even if we are not in a place to “solve” plastic pollution, we are in a good place for initiative and leap-frogging. For example, TIPA was able to assist the “plastic free cities” initiative.

Over three hundred towns across Europe tried to reduce plastic packaging by joining the English cities and towns working to earn a “plastic free” designation. With different products and different packaging needs, shoppers and retailers in these resourceful cities have developed a suite of solutions. They may not achieve the ideal, but they respond to where we are today.

Some store-owners charged a premium for disposable (one-use) food ware; others offered a discount for reusables or a combination of both.They discovered that they face systemic challenges — incomplete recycling systems or non-cooperative consumer behaviors.

Though critics are quick to point out that the cities are entirely free of plastic, all the discoveries they’ve made striving for that goal are an important part of moving forward.

Plastic-free cities learned what many of us learned when we started to recycle — that the challenges are both nuanced and systemic. But as they step out and commit to innovative solutions, these attempts, however short of the mark, are doing something that their critics are not — providing experimental data points for a map of all the systemic shortcomings, the gaps, from cradle to grave, that need innovative patching. Others will come behind them to fill the gaps.

The cities have decided to more narrowly define their “plastic-free” goal by targeting “single-use” — use it; throw it away — plastic. By prioritizing plastic (for example, cyclists’ reusable water bottles), they have a partial but realistic and achievable goal on which to build more ambitious goals as systems and technologies develop. In the meantime, reusables could net a reduction in carbon footprint, depending on how many times a bottle is reused. That gives users a realistic net-positive goal for the moment.

The portfolio view of the problem

Dr. Margaret (Meg) Sobkowicz, a polymer scientist exploring green packaging solutions in the department of Plastics Engineering at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, reminds us that today’s fossil fuel-based plastic empire didn’t arrive overnight.

“We have 100 years of developing products … from fossil fuel,” says Sobkowicz.

In that time we’ve covered the planet, from the human womb to benthic animals at the ocean’s floor, with micro plastic. We’re now creating hundreds of millions of tons of plastic waste per year.

In her work on Green chemistry, renewable polymers, and plastics recycling, Dr. Sobkowicz has come to a conclusion that the plastic-free cities are discovering empirically:

“We need to look at a portfolio of options,” she says. Sobkowicz spent time in Arizona’s Biosphere II and went on to do field work in the petroleum industry, so she has looked at the problem from chemical, business, and social angles. The portfolio Sobkowicz refers to would include advanced compostables, packaging made for reuse, new ways to recycle, and would call for reduction in use altogether.

“Capitalism doesn’t like reduction,” Sobkowicz says as an aside.

From among her colleagues, Sobkowicz notes several promising directions in plastics research:

  • Separate the layers in the plastic’s structure, each of which can be recycled separately
  • “Work with the catalysts so that it’s more cost-effective”
  • “Reclaim some of the chemicals and turn it into plastic.”

As Sobkowicz takes in the whole portfolio of options, she seems to imply that there should be some consensus or guidelines for prioritizing the challenges. For example, how do you weigh the environmental cost of producing something against the financial costs of its disposal?

Successful guidelines for sustainable petrochemical development going forward will probably require some leadership. Decisions will be fraught with frustrating tensions.

One set of priorities Sobkowicz seems to favor is considering the product’s life cycle in terms of carbon atoms, and weighing the package’s duration (time in use) against its carbon and financial costs.

“We’re using chemicals that have been in the ground for a million years,” Sobkowicz says, “and throwing them away in a few months. It doesn’t make sense.”

Managing the priorities — a science in itself

Perhaps only an algorithmic AI “leader” could organize all the plastic challenges, priorities, and solutions, from cradle to grave, under one roof. It would give both the negatives (carbon emissions, fossil fuel use, production of long-term waste) and the positives (environmental and financial gains) weighted values. And still some leadership would have to determine those weights.

This sort of AI solution may be abstract, but it’s not preposterous. Smart operating systems — in our our cars, our water treatment plants, our industrial farms, our recycling plants, our robotic factories — already manage complex interactions between competing micro-systems to achieve a prioritized set of goals.

The most preposterous feature of an AI-based solution to plastic is that it would involve large numbers of human stakeholders working together. As a species, we are only just beginning to grasp this notion. For example, climate change and population growth are driving us to work together across boundaries on our oceans. Fish do not stay within national boundaries. And yet it took 7 years for 25 nations to sign on to the global Port States Measures Agreement (to combat illegal fishing). Ten years later, the number is at only 63 nations. Global cooperation on huge systemic problems is slow.

Who in our contentious world will develop the AI to guide an ideal future for plastic?

Solutions: the the lurching, tentacled beast of plastics future

To Sobkowicz’s point, one reconceptualization gaining traction in the business world is the “loop” or “circular economy.” This reconceptualizes the linear “cradle-to-grave” trajectory so that inputs and outputs meet a cradle-to-cradle objective.

In the packaging world, it is building products around systems for recycling. In this industry, only our newer recycling plants can take recyclables, with all their contaminants, and “capture” salable base materials for new products at above 95%.

If China’s refusal to take our plastic waste spurred the US recycling industry to up its game once. China is now poised to give us another boost. The behemoth nation has announced plans to become plastic bag free by 2022 — with a brief exception for market produce bags.

Plastic Bag Production Line, SW China. Photo Credit: Zhangzj Cet, Creative Commons

New plastics companies are also stepping in to drive change. For example, Loop Industries has developed a method for breaking PET, the plastic base of Coca Cola bottles, into pure monomers, or building blocks, that can be reused over and over. Now setting up its first plant in South Carolina, Loop has already secured a 5-year deal to provide feedstock for Coca Cola bottles. Furthermore, by using low heat and no pressure, Loop developed a less energy-intensive process, giving its product a relatively low carbon footprint. Oddly, these developments receive little media play.

Another promising project, Bioplastic Recycling is developing ways to recycle the sugar or corn-based polymers of bio-plastic feedstocks such as polylactic acid (PLA), used in coating disposable cups.

Larger businesses are getting the message that consumers want plastic pollution to go the way of the dinosaur. In particular, European demand for sustainable products is driving innovation. Market reports for 2019 show surprising growth in sustainable plastic products, and start-up capital seems to be smiling on the sector. All this activity adds pressure on larger companies to keep up.

DuPont Tate & Lyle have a bio-based and biodegradable material called Susterra propanediol, which has no fossil fuel ingredients. Nature Works, a pioneer in the field, committed to using certified sustainable feedstocks by 2020. (They should be checked in on!) Powerhouse chemical company BASF is developing branded product lines of compostable plastic. Unilever, a brand often touting its sustainability, has developed recyclable packaging for the Asian “sachets” used to package single-use shampoo and other personal care products. It seems a small development, but these small, problematic packets are rife in low-income Asian communities where they commonly litter the landscapes.

Siemens is among a spate of companies trying to substitute renewables for petroleum. Taking simple (“renewable”) building blocks like water, instead of fossil fuels, they’ve developed a process that breaks down the molecules into O2 and H2 from which hydrocarbon products can be assembled.

Within large companies these innovative stirrings often occupy small corners. It’s not that global companies aren’t interested, or even aggressively investigating, renewable and compostable options for single-use plastics. But the temptations of a mature, lucrative industry are just too powerful to resist.

Backtracking on the horizon

As Sobkowicz points out, fossil fuel is currently an easy and inexpensive go-to building block for all kinds of plastic products. And as in the example of TIPA, the latest generation of bioplastic packaging still contains 30% petrochemical base stocks because these feedstocks hit all the needed features.

Kevin Moor, president of renewable chemicals at Archer Daniels Midland suggests that not only is the fossil fuel boom providing a cheap ingredient, it’s adding drag to development of alternatives. “Low petroleum and low natural gas prices make it more challenging to commercialize renewables,” Moor says in “Growing Renewables” (2017).

This was three years before oil prices went into the negative dollars.

Like Moor, NatureWorks CEO Rich Weber heads a mission that is branded for sustainability. The NatureWorks brand creates “renewably sourced polymers” and “lactide-based” solutions such as its bioplastic polymer Ingeo.

Yet they’ve dropped “sustainability” as a stand-alone objective. “‘To be honest,” Weber says, “we only look at applications where there is going to be an end performance benefit.”

Partially owned by US food giant Cargill, NatureWorks says it is responsive to clients that go out of their way to find “cradle-to-cradle options” say, for packaging additives (coatings, adhesives, sealants, elastomers — known in the industry as C.A.S.E.). But the NatureWorks client has to drive that solution.

According to Sobkowicz, regulation needs to play a role in shifting the balance away from fossil fuels. Regulation could signal a new direction, a set of priorities, a goal post. It could mobilize funding. It could nudge corporate boardrooms and innovative technologies. But while businesses and consumers look for stable regulatory leadership, governments show little appetite (nor aptitude) for problem-solving.

Exxon Mobil oil refinery, Baton Rouge, LA Photo credit: Clark, Creative Commons

And 2020 saw a disturbing counter-trend. Decreasing demand for fossil fuels is driving fossil fuel companies to proliferate petrochemical uses. Considering the abstruse science of plastics (how many people even know crude oil goes into plastic?), plastics is a good place to bury your petrochemical use.

According to Steven Feit, a staff attorney at the advocacy group Center for International Environmental Law, companies humming under a fracking boom are “eager to find a use for the ethane they get as a byproduct of drilling.” Pennsylvania, a fracking hub, is gearing up to take advantage by building petrochemical plants near its burgeoning fracking operations.

“They’re looking for a way to monetize it,” Feit said. “You can think of plastic as a kind of subsidy for fracking.”

In even less hopeful news, the petrochemical industry is slated for rapid growth:

“A recent study identified 88 petrochemical plant projects along the Gulf Coast that are either in the planning stage or under construction. If all are completed, their combined emissions output could reach 150.8 million metric tons, the equivalent of 38 coal plants.” (Quoted from E& E News by Benjamin Storrow, January 21, 2020).

This caution was echoed recently in the Inside Climate News report by James Bruggers. Both Bruggers and Storrow remind us that Louisiana is set to come online with a mega petrochemical complex, one of the “largest greenhouse gas emitters in America,” Storrow says.

Thousands of these chemicals permeate our world — glues, tapes, even the little beads that likely filter your city’s water at the treatment plant, all petroleum based.

Analysis: Forward trumps backward

Perhaps the only countervaling force against the tempting bargain prices of fossil fuel is the prospect of relentless, full-blown bad press. Public pressure works. And the public has an appetite for action.

In a world racing against 2 degrees celsius, we should probably spend less time exposing “greenwashing” and demanding perfect solutions. This type of paralysis we can’t afford.

Plastic free cities like Penzance show that no one person builds a “plastic-free” world — not yet. It’s going to be an all-hands slog. But the growing number of “plastic-free city” commitments show the power of banding together in commitment.

Whether through plastic-free cities, protests, collaborative chemistry labs, innovative start-ups or mutual fund divestitures, banding together is at least moving the needle.

Kudos to Europe for the domino effect caused by plastic-free cities. Even kudos to China for their top-down commitment to solving the plastic dilemma. The first step in finding a solution is overcoming inertia.

Fossil fuel companies are quick to point out that their industry is misunderstood. We can admit the complexities of their challenge and root for them to find solutions and self-regulate. But we don’t have to stop there. Pressure and encouragement must come from all sectors, in order to accelerate the transition from fossil fuels.

Regulatory signals are important. But even if US regulation doesn’t ride in on its horse, it makes sense to keep the pressure coming, to drive innovation with our demands and purchase dollars. We also have to recognize and support novel solutions. Successful innovations, however imperfect, can provide a driver even an old giant corporation has to heed: competition.