Plastic futures

Our love affair with plastic seems to know no bounds and isn’t stopping.

The first plastic, bakelite, was produced in 1907 and since then the global plastics industry has exploded, now producing 300 million tons a year. This astonishing growth has outpaced almost all other manufactured materials, but it has also overtaken our ability to deal with it. In other words, the plastic garbage problem is bad and getting worse, with the World Bank forecasting that plastic waste will grow by 70 percent in the next 30 years.

Picture 1
Cumulative plastic waste generation and disposal (Science mag –

The type of plastic we produce is also problematic. 50% of plastics are single-use and 42% are for packaging.

One of the key problems with plastics is that they take a long time to break down naturally. Plastic items can take up to 1000 years to decompose in landfill.

With so much plastic hanging around for long periods it’s only inevitable that some makes its way into our water courses and oceans to reek environmental havoc.

Outraged by the environmental impact of single use plastics and its symbolism of our throwaway society, a plethora of governments, cities and businesses have now banned (or plan to) a variety of single use plastics (including Seattle, Starbucks, McDonalds, Alaskan Airlines).

And even the humble straw has become persona non grata in all discerning social circles.

But of the eight million tons of plastic flowing into our oceans every year, straws comprise just 0.025 percent of that. So we are going to have to do more than just banning straws if we want to address the environmental issues around plastics.

So practically what can we do about it – well, we can recycle, reuse and compost.

And given the level of consumer concern around plastic packaging (73% of customers are concerned about plastic waste) there is also a huge market opportunity that is growing around plastic free solutions.


We can just increase our efforts to recycle plastics – right? Wrong!

If the aluminium can is the world’s perfect recyclable container, plastic is the opposite. Aluminium can be recycled innumerable times.  Plastics on the other hand can be recycled only a limited number of times and are difficult to recycle.

Currently only 9% of plastics are recycled, with 12% being incinerated and a massive 79% going into landfill.

Each variety of plastic requires a different recycling process, as the plastics are made from thousands of different formulas, and food packaging in particular is problematic with plastic films very difficult to recycle. Plastic waste also needs sorting, usually by hand, and is very easily contaminated.

Currently only 9% of plastics are recycled, with 12% being incinerated and a massive 79% going into landfill.  And the proportion of recycled plastics is likely to decline in the future.

Up until recently China has had a seemingly insatiable appetite for plastic waste, and imported 70 percent of the world’s total waste since 1992, a $200 billion global recycling industry. The problem now is that as of the 1st January 2018, China has refused to import most recyclable materials, claiming materials exceed acceptable contamination levels.

In terms of reuse and moving away from plastic packaging, companies that produce and sell food are most concerned about food safety and shelf life issues.

This has backed up the flow of disposed plastics, causing serious problems for local waste management companies and councils around the world, including here in Australia. Whilst other SE Asian countries (Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia) are now taking up the slack (at least for now), the global capacity to recycle plastic is massively reduced and it is also an opportunity to change the way we do things.

Options for improved and efficient recycling of plastics, particularly food wrappers in producer countries, need to be developed, although will need to be an efficient bulk handling operation.

But increasingly recycling can’t be the only solution.


How about increasing the reuse of plastics?

In terms of reuse and moving away from plastic packaging, companies that produce and sell food are most concerned about food safety and shelf life issues.

At the recent Innovations in Food Safety, Traceability and Processing Technology Forum in Melbourne, Lubna Edwards, Global Sustainability Director for Klockner Pentaplast highlighted that ‘for most packaging companies, its still about functionality over sustainability’.

Jacqui Good of local South Australian producers Thistle Be Good – she uses containers that can be reused – ‘It’s a small cost offset to get better packaging that meets the needs of keeping products safe, but that can also be used for long term storage and safety’.

Jacqui Good, owner of Thistle Be Good, supports this position. She says ‘the most important quality of food packaging is its shelf stability – which may need to be up to 24 months – but customers also like to see the product’.

Whilst Jacqui understands the environmental issues around plastics, she says ‘over the last 17 years of operation, I’ve only had 3 enquires about packaging recycling from customers’, and so she uses containers that can be reused. ‘It’s a small cost offset to get better packaging that meets the needs of keeping products safe, but that can also be used for long term storage and safety’.

Jacqui is no stranger to the environmental cause and lives in an ecovillage. ‘But there is a large amount of conflicting information out there on what the best strategy is, and government, industry and consumer groups have a responsibility to help consumers and producers find a way through to plot a more sustainable future’.

Some shops are moving towards more extreme solutions – going plastic free and encouraging customers to forsake plastic packaging and use containers at home (plastic or glass) for long term storage of purchased items.

Very much returning to a pre-packaging time of buying what you need, transporting in paper or reusable contains, and storing at home in specific jars and containers designed for long term storage. Examples include the Dutch chain Ekoplaza in Amsterdam which has a plastic packaging free aisle, and Thornton Budgens in Belsize Park, London, which has gone completely plastic free.

In terms of reusing plastic packaging, new high value products are being created from what would otherwise be waste. Several companies that incorporate plastic waste into road tarmac have emerged recently and promote their environmental credentials. MacRebur, a UK based start up, boasts that for each km of road laid using their products, the equivalent weight of 684,000 bottles or 1.8 million single use plastic bags are reused. 1 tonne of tarmac mix contains the equivalent of 80,000 plastic bottles. MacRebur’s CEO, Toby McCartney, also points out that reuse of plastics in this way also reduces fossil fuel usage, leading to a reduction in carbon footprint and helps foster a circular economy.

And a new tarmac product produced by Melbourne-based start up, Close the Loop, boasts even higher environmental credentials, reusing 530,000 plastic bags, more than 12,000 recycled printer cartridges and 168,000 glass bottles to pave a 300-metre stretch of road.

With new products entering this market we are seeing innovation turn the plastic problem into profit.

Biodegradable solutions

But in the end, the days of plastic packaging may be limited, and driven to an early grave by a new green economy.

The size of the flexible packaging market is estimated at $102B (Source: Smithers Pira) and has a compound annual growth rate of 4.4%. Increasingly industry leaders in this sector are looking for new packaging solutions that won’t associate their product with the environmental problems of old-school plastic packaging.

And new companies are popping up to fill the void.

Tipa, an Israel based start up I visited last year, promotes itself as the world’s first developer of high-end fully compostable flexible packaging. ‘Tipa’s bioplastics emulate the properties of conventional plastics but are 100% compostable and decompose in less than 6 months’, says Julia Schifter, VP Strategy Analysis. ‘Our products are being used for fresh produce, snack food, dry goods, coffee beans, sachets, meat, super food, tea, bakery, zipper bags, apparel and magazines’.

Kimberly Bolton, CEO Carapac, in the Startup Alley at EvokeAg in Melbourne earlier this year

Another – Australian based – company, Carapac, has developed a sustainable, durable and home compostable packaging out of seafood shell waste (prawns, lobsters, crabs). ‘The advantage of our product is that it can be broken down in 3-6 weeks when home composted’ says CEO Kimberly Bolton. ‘Our product also helps extend product shelf life with its natural anti-fungal properties, boosts soil quality when composted, and will simply dissolve if it makes its way into the ocean’

So where there is a will there is a way.

Environment problems can become solutions and profit once, the problem is recognised, old ways of doing things are rethought and innovation takes over.

Featured image: Carapac website

Published by Prof Andy Lowe

Prof Andy Lowe is a British-Australian scientist and expert in plants and trees, particularly the management of genetic, biological and ecosystem resources. He has discovered lost forests, championed to eliminate illegally logged timber in global supply chains, served the United Nation’s Office of Drugs and Crime and is a lead author of the Intergovernmental Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services – Land Degradation and Restoration report. He has helped secure a quarter of a billion dollars worth of research funding in his field and is an experienced and respected executive leader, board member, as well as mid-career mentor. Andy has been the Scientist in Residence at The Australian Financial Review since August 2018. Andy is inaugural Director of Agrifood and Wine at the University of Adelaide serving as the external face for food industry and government sector partnerships across Australia, and the world.

One thought on “Plastic futures

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: