Plastic everywhere; it is an environmental catastrophe that leaves some people drowning in unbiodegradable plastic refuse and many animal species facing slow painful deaths. With plastic already deeply involved in the food chain, its health implications are perilous.
Mass production of plastics began in the late nineteenth century, and since then we have manufactured 8.3 billion tonnes of it with 80 percent of that ending up in the environment and landfill; each year 8 million tons are dumped in the ocean, an estimated 5 trillion plastic bits and pieces.
Something must be done about it before it’s too late, and although various national and international measures such as banning plastic straws, removing microbeads from cosmetic products, and charging for supermarket bags should make an impact, it is likely to be a limited one.
Solving the plastics problem is a huge challenge that will require a coordinated multidisciplinary approach involving scientists, engineers, administrators, and politicians.
What are plastics?
Plastics are amazing. Manufactured mainly from oil-based polymers and tweaked by multitudes of alternative chemical groups to modify their properties, they have myriads of uses as diverse as disposable plastic packaging, automotive components, and clothing.
In fact, the biggest use of plastics is packaging, which uses 40 percent of all that is produced. Next are building and construction which uses 20 percent. The largest plastic producer is China, responsible for 29 percent of global plastic production, followed by Europe, 19 percent, and North America and Mexico, 18 percent.
The durability of plastics is what, on the one hand, makes them so attractive and, on the other, so detrimental; it is their persistence in the environment that poses such a major threat to the environment.
In the UK alone, we discard 700,000 plastic bottles a day. Made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET), transparent drinks bottles can be recycled. The plastic has a low melting temperature and can be reformed without significant damage to its polymer chains. But globally only 7 percent of PET is recycled: it is uneconomical to do so. In fact, it is far cheaper to create a new bottle from scratch.
So, what can be done?
One approach is to encourage recycling by charging a returnable deposit on PET bottles and is currently being assessed by the authorities.
However, recycling is further complicated as only food quality plastics can be used; for instance, any PET bottle that once held non-food items such as paint thinner must be excluded. This is a huge problem and is currently the focus of much R&D.
Breaking plastics down into monomer units is a possible approach. Such units could be used to create new plastics.
Various approaches are being investigated. For instance, bacterial enzymes are being developed that will break down plastic at temperatures around 30 C though so far, the process is inefficient.
Currently few plastics are biodegradable, so developing new and better biodegradable plastics could provide a partial solution. The current state of the art includes:
• Maize starch and sugar cane-derived polylactic acid (PLA) is now an established biodegradable plastic
• Biodegradable polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs) can potentially be made from breaking down waste PET
• Mater-Bi is a thermoplastic starch made from sugar and plant oils.
• Other research projects are investigating the use of wood chips and other biomass waste for biodegradable plastics.
However, the problem with most biodegradables is they need special conditions to break down; for instance, 12 weeks storage at 57°C. Also, they contaminate waste streams, so are not welcomed by recycling businesses.
While some biodegradable plastics can breakdown unaided, but they are expensive to make. The further problem is that no existing biodegradable plastic offers similar gas-barrier properties to PET, so they are unsuitable for the fizzy drink industry.
Despite the enormous amount of plastic that ends up in the ocean, there is less there than there should be. The reason is bacteria have evolved to feed on it. While this might appear to provide a partial solution, in fact, it only exacerbates the problem as many environmentally damaging constituents such as phthalates are left behind to poison the food chain.
While the scale of the problem appears overwhelming, extending R&D effort into the areas already mentioned, along with novel, innovative approaches currently attracting the attention of both new businesses and established corporations can only help. At least we might avoid the potential situation in which there is as much plastic in the sea as there are fish; predicted to happen by 2050.
R&D investment in these areas is also encouraged by HMRC’s R&D tax credit scheme, which could provide a significant reduction in corporation tax for companies involved in overcoming these issues.
If you are wondering whether your R&D into plastics could qualify for a R&D tax credit claim contact our technical team on 01423 815299 for a free no obligation assessment, or take a look at our R&D Tax Credit Page.