Tag Archives: plastic pollution

How a Global Treaty on Plastics Can Work

U.S.-based researchers reported in Feb, 2015, that more than 4.8 million metric tons of plastic waste enter the oceans from land each year.

U.S.-based researchers reported in Feb, 2015, that more than 4.8 million metric tons of plastic waste enter the oceans from land each year.

By Nils Simon 
July 13, 2016

Plastic pollution is more than an ocean problem, and it’s time we treat it as such.

Plastics have boosted our economy because they are versatile, cheap and durable. Yet, thanks to these same traits, in the course of establishing a US$750 billion global industry, we have also created a massive problem. Rivers are filled with plastic garbage. Plastic bottles soil beaches. Masses of plastic are floating in the ocean. Birds become entangled in plastic pieces, and whales’ stomachs fill with plastic debris. Plastics can harm humans, too, by releasing toxic additives.

And the problem is getting worse: The production of plastics reached 311 million metric tons (343 million tons) in 2014 and is continuing to increase worldwide. Scientists estimate that in 2010 alone between 5 and 13 million metric tons (6 and 14 million tons) of plastics streamed into the sea. Many hopes have been put on biodegradable plastics, but those still don’t break down easily enough.

A number of initiatives have recognized the need to address plastic pollution more decisively, including the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. In the Leaders’ Declaration from its 2015 summit, the G7 committed to “combat marine litter.” The U.N. Environment Programme has published several reports on the environmental impact of plastics, launched a number of initiatives against marine litter, and passed a resolution on microplastics and marine litter at its latest U.N. Environment Assembly in May 2016. Although the resolution recognizes plastic pollution as “a rapidly increasing serious issue of global concern that needs an urgent global response,” thus far these initiatives have done little to solve the problem.

Back to the Land

Plastic ends up in the oceans, but it doesn’t start there. Why has plastics pollution been so intransigent from a global governance perspective? One reason is the inevitable difficulty that comes with complex policy problems, where many actors have a stake in the game and no clear-cut remedy exists. Still, I believe that a more hands-on approach can at least pave the way toward more durable solutions. However, for it to do so we must rethink current efforts to shape multilateral actions, which have mostly taken place with a focus on oceans. After all, plastic ends up in the oceans, but it doesn’t start there. Oceans-based agreements just don’t have what it takes to tackle the main sources of plastic pollution. It is time to step up the game by negotiating a global treaty aimed at reducing plastic pollution that goes beyond marine pollution and tackles the roots of the problem.

Two options seem most viable for crafting a binding international agreement to deal with plastics. First, a stand-alone treaty could be negotiated, a multilateral environmental agreement dealing specifically with the production, use and disposal of plastics. It would not have to be built entirely from scratch because the U.N. already has a cluster of treaties dealing with a range of chemicals (which plastics are) and waste (which most plastics become). This chemicals and waste cluster is built by the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm conventions, which deal with the shipment and treatment of hazardous waste, international trade of toxic chemicals, and persistent organic pollutants, respectively. This cluster will soon be joined by the Minamata Convention, restricting the use and trade of mercury and dealing with its disposal. Any of these conventions could be a model for a plastics treaty that would be far more appropriate than a marine agreement because they contain provisions on how to deal with harmful substances from a life-cycle perspective, ban the most hazardous ones, and offer a framework through which countries in need can receive assistance.

Second, the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal could be amended to specifically address plastic throughout its life cycle. Back in 2002, the Basel Convention’s member states passed technical guidelines on how to deal with plastic waste. These guidelines could serve as the basis for negotiating an amendment that, once ratified, would make sustainable management of plastics mandatory to its members.

First and foremost, a common vision and clear goals are crucial.There are also quirkier alternatives, building on a mix of legally binding and voluntary measures. For example, so-called emerging policy issues like nanoparticles or lead in paint are tackled under the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management. SAICM is a voluntary multi-stakeholder policy framework for managing chemicals sustainably. It could be used to launch a plastics-based program, to raise awareness among governmental and non-governmental actors alike, and to prepare negotiations on a treaty. In addition, land- and oceans-based approaches could be combined to build on their respective strengths. The former could be covered in a stand-alone treaty or a treaty amendment as described above, whereas the latter could be tackled under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, MARPOL or the various regional seas agreements to focus on waste dumping at sea or lost fishing gear.

Critical Elements

Whatever form the new agreement will take, the specific content will be key to its success in reducing plastic pollution. Five critical elements should be included (for a related take, see this proposal for a Global Action Agenda).

 First and foremost, a common vision and clear goals are crucial. The vision should call for the sustainable management of all plastics throughout their life cycle. A number of concrete goals could specify steps to achieve this, and a review system for measuring how well all nations implement them would make progress transparent.

Second, a plastics treaty should demand (and support) building effective national collection and recycling systems, because they are the most effective means of preventing plastic littering. Extended producer responsibility schemes and multi-stakeholder partnerships could be fostered to further extend collection where governments lack capacities. When this doesn’t suffice, plastic manufacturers could be charged to provide revenues for establishing recycling systems.

Third, the treaty should create conditions for a more circular plastic economy. Chemical and other companies must be pushed toward innovation for more sustainable products, including plastics that more easily degrade in the environment. This is a huge innovation challenge for the industry, yet it can elicit a race to the top just as provisions to safeguard the ozone layer through the Montreal Protocol did 30 years ago. The companies moving first will have the biggest advantages in the years to come.

Fourth, no matter how good collection programs are and how safe innovative plastics will become, some of it will still end up in the environment (joining the millions of tons already there). A plastics treaty should thus provide for mechanisms to deal with any plastic waste that remains.

There is a strong economic argument for taking on the plastics challenge: Not only are environmental and health damages of untreated plastic pollution extremely costly, there is also huge savings potential.Fifth, to get all this to work, a plastics treaty must provide funds for implementation. These days, raising money for multilateral agreements is a really tough job. But there is a strong economic argument for taking on the plastics challenge: Not only are environmental and health damages of untreated plastic pollution extremely costly, there is also huge savings potential (for example, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that 95 percent of the value of plastic packaging — some US$80 billion to US$120 billion — is lost each year when the material is discarded).

The problem of plastic pollution will not be resolved by simply negotiating a new international treaty. However, such a treaty could be the cornerstone for a more comprehensive approach linking public and private actors, binding regulation and market-based schemes, land-based and ocean-centered activities.

We have seen a lot of partnership-based, ocean-focused and mostly voluntary action in the past. It is time to bring international law into this picture and craft a treaty that can spearhead a real and enduring solution. View Ensia homepage

This story from Ensia was republished under a Creative Commons licence

Related on F&O:

The search for sustainable plastics. By Phil McKenna

3314227532_e338e91363_oThe fate of the world’s oceans may rest inside a stainless steel tank not quite the size of a small beer keg. Inside, genetically modified bacteria turn corn syrup into a churning mass of polymers that can be used to produce a wide variety of common plastics.

Nils Simon is a Berlin-based political scientist specializing in international environmental and sustainability governance. He wrote his Ph.D. on global chemicals governance and has worked extensively on the United Nations, multi-stakeholder partnerships and the phenomenon of institutional complexity. contributor_nils_simonNils Simon is a Berlin-based political scientist specializing in international environmental and sustainability governance. He wrote his Ph.D. on global chemicals governance and has worked extensively on the United Nations, multi-stakeholder partnerships and the phenomenon of institutional complexity.

 

 

 

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Matters of Facts, and Opinions this week

Shepherds direct their herd as they migrate to summer pastures in Serra da Estrela, near Seia, Portugal June 27, 2015. In late June, shepherds young and old in the Seia region of central Portugal start guiding sheep, goats and cattle to the Serra da Estrela, the country’s highest mountains, in search of better pastures. There they stay until the end of September. Modern-day shepherds may have mobile phones to keep in touch with family and friends, but their lifestyle has changed little for centuries. The sound of cowbells and the bark of longhaired mastiffs starts early in the morning as the animals – often decorated with traditional woollen balls on their horns - are herded up steep, narrow paths.  REUTERS/Rafael Marchante

REUTERS/Rafael Marchante

Photo-essay:

Old Traditions, New Pastures: Portugal’s last shepherds (unlocked)*

Photographer Rafael Marchante, of Reuters, accompanied a flock of sheep and goats from the Portuguese region of Seia during the first three days of ascent, living alongside some of the last shepherds who preserve this ancient tradition. Modern-day shepherds may have mobile phones to keep in touch with family and friends, but their lifestyle has changed little for centuries.Transhumance, the ascent in search of better pastures, normally takes place from June to late September. In the area around the Serra da Estrela, the highest mountain range in Portugal, this seasonal ritual has been followed since Roman times.  Click here for more photo-essays.

Dispatches:

No snow, no problem — China wins 2022 Winter Olympics. By Reuters (unlocked)*

The snow will be fake, but the very real financial muscle China boasts proved decisive on Friday when Beijing won the right to host the 2022 Winter Olympics. Human rights activists criticized the award, saying the International Olympic Committee had sent the wrong message at a time of growing government pressure on activists and civil society.

Stop killer robots, researchers warn in open letter. By Toby Walsh (unlocked)*

An open letter by major researchers and thinkers calls for a ban on offensive autonomous weapons, known as “killer robots.” The July 27 letter was signed by SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk, physicist Stephen Hawking, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, Skype co-founder Jaan Talinn linguist and activist Noam Chomsky, plus some 1,000  leading researchers in artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics.

Ebola vaccine holds hope for end of scourge. By Reuters (unlocked)*

The world is on the verge of being able to protect humans against Ebola, the World Health Organization said, as a trial in Guinea found a vaccine to have been 100 percent effective. Initial results from the trial, which tested Merck and NewLink Genetics’ VSV-ZEBOV vaccine on some 4,000 people who had been in close contact with a confirmed Ebola case, showed complete protection after 10 days.

 The search for sustainable plastics. By Phil McKenna (unlocked)*

3314227532_e338e91363_oThe fate of the world’s oceans may rest inside a stainless steel tank not quite the size of a small beer keg. Inside, genetically modified bacteria turn corn syrup into a churning mass of polymers that can be used to produce a wide variety of common plastics. 

Commentary:

Why it’s right not to vote in Canada, by Tom Regan (unlocked)*

There’s a brouhaha as Canada prepares for the upcoming federal election, over whether Canadians like me who live abroad should have the right to vote after being out of the country for a certain period of time. We should not. Even if I had the right to vote in election Canada I wouldn’t use it. It would be like throwing a dart at a board while blindfolded.

Canada’s pipeline project runs through swamp of Malaysian politics, by Jonathan Manthorpe (paywall)*

British Columbians need to know how closely the fate of their $40 billion natural gas pipeline deal is tied to the survival of Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak. There are two unsavoury reasons. If Najib loses control of his position, his successor may see  projects associated with him as tainted. Should he survive, does Premier Christie Clark relish the prospect of the northern pipeline project, in which she has invested so much political capital and of which she has such grandiose expectations, resting in the hands of a man, Najib, around whom swirls the smell of bribery, corruption and even murder?

Robert Goddard and The Big Blue Marble, by Jim McNiven (unlocked)*

Robert Goddard was the quintessential Yankee inventor. Born in 1882, he was raised and lived much of his life in Worcester, Massachusetts. Goddard was a sickly boy who fell behind in school and did not graduate until he was twenty-two. Spending lots of time home in bed, he became a voracious reader, and was highly taken with H.G.Wells’s War of the Worlds, which was published when he was sixteen. At seventeen he discovered his life’s work while staring at the sky as he pruned trees around his parents’ house. He would devise a way to escape Earth’s gravity and travel through space.

Living With an Ankle Bracelet in America. By M.M., Loose Leaf salon  (unlocked)*

I cannot sleep. There is a device on my leg. It requires that I wake up an hour early so I can plug it into a charger and stand next to the outlet, like a cell phone charging up for the day. Not the day, actually, but 12 hours. After that, the device runs out of juice. Wherever I am, I have to find an outlet to plug myself into. If I don’t, I’m likely to be thrown back onto Rikers Island. At the age of 22, I landed in prison. Though I had grown up around violence, it was my first time in trouble. I’d taken the law into my own hands during an altercation, because where I come from, we don’t dial 911 for help — we see how badly police officers treat people like us. 

Arts:

Anne Murray. Guy McPherson photo courtesy of the Fraser MacPherson estate

Finding Her Roots in Country Music: Anne Murray, by Brian Brennan (paywall)*

At a press conference I once asked Donny Osmond how many times a day he brushed his teeth to keep them so sparkling white. He answered, in all seriousness, that his teeth were capped. Then his publicist kicked me out of the room. Clearly, I was not showing the proper respect. I was also kicked out of the room when I asked the Bay City Rollers if a singer had to be five foot five or less in order to qualify for membership in the band. In Anne Murray’s case, I didn’t ask any silly questions.

The Man Booker is stacked in favour of big publishers. By Stevie Marsden (unlocked)*

The Man Booker Prize for Fiction has announced its longlist for the 2015 award. Now in its 46th year, the award is among the most prestigious in the literary world. It is also incredibly generous to the big publishing houses.

Expert Witness: 

Cecil the lion’s fate a matter of conservation. By Lochran Traill and Norman Owen-Smith (unlocked)*

Much of the attention generated by the demise of Cecil the lion appears related to the fact that he was a member of a charismatic species, that his species is threatened and the nature of his death. But now that Cecil, a resident of Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, is gone how do we ensure that such events are not repeated? It is not as simple as banning hunting.

 

Brent Stapelkamp

Cecil and a lioness. Brent Stapelkamp

 

Recommended elsewhere: 

Life with the lions: revisited, Oxford university science blog, by Pete Wilton

The killing of Cecil the lion was one of the lions fitted with a GPS collar as part of Oxford University research led by Andrew Loveridge. Oxford revisits a 2012 interview with Loveridge about his work with lions. … read more on Oxford’s site.

Last but not least, in memory of Cecil and all other creatures killed by “trophy” hunters:

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The search for sustainable plastics

By Phil McKenna, Ensia 
July, 2015

3314227532_e338e91363_o

As petroleum-based polymers foul our oceans and litter our lives, researchers seek more environmentally friendly ways to meet demand for durable, versatile materials. Photo courtesy of Algalita Foundation

The fate of the world’s oceans may rest inside a stainless steel tank not quite the size of a small beer keg. Inside, genetically modified bacteria turn corn syrup into a churning mass of polymers that can be used to produce a wide variety of common plastics.

“It’s a bit like making yogurt,” says Oliver Peoples, chief scientific officer of  Metabolix, Inc.

The Cambridge, Massachusetts–based U.S. company where bioplastics take shape in laboratory-scale fermentation chambers is one of a growing number of businesses and institutions working to develop cost-competitive, more environmentally friendly replacements for conventional plastics, which are made from fossil fuels, fail to decompose and are turning our oceans into seas of floating plastic.

“We’ve seen this huge increase in production in plastic that results in an increase in the waste stream as well,” says Jenna Jambeck, an environmental engineering faculty member at the University of Georgia. “Unlike material that biodegrades, plastic has all of these issues. It easily travels into waterways, it physically fragments into smaller pieces which are extremely hard or impossible to collect, and [it tends to] absorb chemical contaminants that are already in the environment.”

Some 4.8 million to 12.7 million metric tons (5.3 million to 14 million tons) of plastic, or up to 4 percent of the roughly 300 million metric tons (330 million tons) of plastic produced each year, entered the ocean as trash in 2010. The figure is expected to increase 10-fold in the next decade as more plastic is produced and subsequently evades waste management and recycling efforts, according to a study Jambeck and colleagues published earlier this year in the journal Science.

What effect all this plastic has on living things, including humans, remains unclear. A number of recent studies show that chemicals in small bits of plastic, and even the plastic bits themselves, can accumulate in birds, fish and other marine life. Laboratory testing has shown the chemicals that comprise them can cause adverse health effects, including liver damage and endocrine disruption through altered gene expression. Whether similar effects occur outside the laboratory or whether they extend up the food chain to people who eat marine organisms remains unknown, yet both seem entirely plausible.

And that’s not all. Plastics are notorious in the greenhouse gas department as well. Roughly 8 percent of the petroleum used worldwide each year goes to make plastic directly or to power the plastic manufacturing processes, according to a recent report by the Worldwatch Institute.

“Even though people feel like they would like to use less plastic rather than more, the fact of the matter is that plastics are modern materials that make cars lighter, purify water and add tremendous benefit to health and security applications.” — Marc HillmyerWhy not just reduce our use? For one thing, plastics are incredibly versatile, meeting a spectrum of needs for flexibility, cost and other parameters that substitute materials would be hard put to match. Not only that, but substitute materials present their own adverse environmental, social and health impacts.

“Even though people feel like they would like to use less plastic rather than more, the fact of the matter is that plastics are modern materials that make cars lighter, purify water and add tremendous benefit to health and security applications,” says Marc Hillmyer, director of the Center for Sustainable Polymers at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

In other words, there are solid reasons for pursuing more sustainable alternatives to conventional plastics — namely, plant-based plastics. Such so-called bioplastics are able to degrade, dramatically reducing the risk that they’ll end up polluting land or sea. They also lower our dependence on fossil fuels, reducing plastic’s carbon footprint. Greenhouse gas emissions associated with bioplastics are 26 percent lower than those associated with conventional plastic, according to a recent life-cycle analysis of corn-based and petroleum-based plastic by researchers at Michigan State University.

Emerging Alternatives

Finding non-petroleum-based, decomposable alternatives to today’s plastics, however, isn’t easy. Plastic made from corn, sugarcane or other plant-based material isn’t necessarily degradable, and getting degradation to occur when you want it to can be difficult.

“You don’t want your plastic bag to degrade while you are using it,” Hillmyer says. “On the other hand you want it to degrade rapidly when put into another environment.”

While chemists have had difficulty reformulating petroleum-based plastics so that they can degrade, a number of bio-based, degradeable alternatives are emerging.

Despite these and other recent successes, bioplastics remain a tiny fraction of the industry as a whole. Natureworks, a company based in Minnetonka, Minnesota, is one of the world’s leading manufactures of bioplastics. The company makes polylactic acid, or PLA, a biodegradable plastic it sources from cornstarch and makes into a wide range of consumer products — including single-use flatware, cups and packaging — that decompose at the end of their useful life. The company’s initial production facility in Blair, Nebraska, came online in 2002 and can produce 140,000 metric tons (150,000 tons) of PLA per year. The company recently announced plans to open a second plant in Southeast Asia that would use sugarcane as its feedstock.

Another leading manufacturer of bioplastic is the Coca-Cola Company, which in 2009 launched PlantBottle, a drink bottle made from polyethylene terephthalate —PET — that contains up to 30 percent biobased material. The bottles are not degradable but, unlike most biobased plastics, can be recycled along with conventional PET, a commonly recycled plastic. Since 2009 the company has produced 35 billion of its original PlantBottles. In June 2015 the company unveiled a new version that is 100 percent biobased.

Despite these and other recent successes, bioplastics remain a tiny fraction of the industry as a whole. The materials are well suited for single use products such as spoons and bottles where consumers are willing to pay a premium for more sustainable products. High durability, less-visible applications — for example, water pipes made of PVC that are commonly used in residential and commercial plumbing — are still made entirely of conventional plastic. In total, less than 0.5 percent of all plastic comes from non-petroleum sources, according to the Society of the Plastics Industry, an industry trade group based in Washington, D.C.

Government regulation, however, is leading to the increased use of bioplastics. In 2014 Illinois banned microbeads, tiny plastic abrasives commonly used in facial scrubs, shampoo and toothpaste, due to concerns about environmental degradation in the Great Lakes. At less than one millimeter in diameter, microbeads are too small to be filtered by sewage treatment systems and have been found in both freshwater and marine environments.

With a federal ban on microbeads expected, Metabolix partnered with Honeywell in March to produce a biodegradable alternative to microbeads The microbeads the two companies are developing are made from Polyhydroxyalkanoates, or PHA, a bio-based plastic that is more expensive but also more versatile than PLA. The microbeads the two companies are developing are made by fermenting cornstarch, though they could also be made from non-food crops such as switchgrass. PHA microbeads will degrade into carbon dioxide and water in a matter of months at the same rate as cellulose or paper, Peoples says.

Around the Down Sides

As we increase our reliance on plastics sourced from crops such as corn or sugarcane, we could inadvertently introduce new environmental concerns. A recent study in the journal Cleaner Production noted bioplastics grown from agricultural feedstocks use significant amounts of water, pesticides and fertilizers that can cause air and water pollution and compete for land with crops grown for food.

One possible way to get around the down sides of plant-based plastics while still reducing dependence on petroleum is to use CO2 as a feedstock instead. Novomer, a company spun out from research at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, is turning waste CO2 from ethanol production plants into plastic. The company makes polyols — polymers used to make flexible foam found in mattresses, seat cushions and insulation, as well as a range of specialty coatings and sealants.

“If your mattress was made with our material, it would be roughly 22 percent by weight carbon dioxide,” says Peter Shepard, Novomer’s executive vice president of polymers. It takes a greenhouse gas that is a waste material and turns it into a valuable product.”

Typically CO2 is too inert to react with other compounds, making its use in plastics or other applications difficult. Geoffrey Coates, a chemistry professor at Cornell University in Ithaca and a co-founder of Novomer, developed a catalyst that increased the reactivity of CO2 while simultaneously slowing down the reactivity of another key polyol ingredient — making it easier to incorporate CO2 into the resulting polymer.

“It’s like if you have kids and you give them pizza and broccoli and you tell them every time you take a bite of pizza you have to take a bite of broccoli,” says Coates, who is also a member of the Center of Sustainable Polymers.

The biggest challenge for bioplastics is that they are competing against conventional plastics, incredibly inexpensive materials that have been honed for the past 60 years, Scheer says.The polyols made by Novomer are degradable but lose their degradability when combined with petroleum-based chemicals to make foam.

Though the company is currently focused on making foams and sealants, Shepard says Novomer’s CO2-based polymers could be used to make degradable plastics with a CO2 content as high as 50 percent.

Biggest Challenge

Despite strong growth in recent years, some say bioplastics haven’t lived up to their potential.

“The bioplastics industry has not been able to create polymers that are attractive enough in terms of pricing and in terms of properties that will make the world willing to change,” says Frederick Scheer, the former CEO of Cereplast, a once-leading bioplastics company that declared bankruptcy in 2014.

The biggest challenge for bioplastics is that they are competing against conventional plastics, incredibly inexpensive materials that have been honed for the past 60 years, Scheer says.

“People are somewhat conscious of the environmental impact of oil-based materials that will not biodegrade, but they are not willing to spend the extra dollars to push [new] types of materials,” he says.

Competition with petroleum-based plastic has only intensified over the past year as the price of oil has dropped in half. “In order to be competitive with traditional oil-based material we needed the price of oil to be somewhere around $130, $140 a barrel,” Scheer says. “Clearly, at $50 a barrel we are far away from being able to compete.”

Scheer says the capacity to make all of the world’s plastic from non-petroleum sources exists, but to do so would require significant government support. “It will have to be driven by regulation that will force the cost of plastic and cost of oil to be substantially higher than it is right now,” he says.

Polyethylene Competitor?

If sustainable plastics that reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and degrade at the end of their useful life are going to go mainstream, they will have to be able to sub in not only for microbeads, foam and other specialty applications but also for thermoplastics — low-cost, shapeable polymers that comprise more than 80 percent of the hundreds of millions of tons of plastic produced each year.

Coates is now working on a new biopolymer with properties comparable to or perhaps better than polyethylene, the most widely produced thermoplastic used to make everything from trash bags to water bottles to plastic toys.

Even a thin layer of polyethylene is incredibly strong, making, for example, mailing envelopes that are nearly impossible to open without scissors or milk jugs that don’t break when dropped on the floor. “Most of that is because it’s a semicrystalline material,” Coates says. “The [polymer] chains pack next to each other in a very tight and specific fashion that overall, gives pretty impressive properties.”

In a 2014 study published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, Coates and colleagues at Cornell described a new material with a semicrystalline structure that is made from a sugar feedstock and has properties similar to polyethylene, yet is better able to decompose at the end of its useful life.

“It doesn’t happen overnight, but I think there are certain positive [indications that it] could be a real competitor for a plastic like polyethylene,” Hillmyer says.

The new material, known as poly(polypropylene succinate), hasn’t been tested to see how quickly it would decompose in a landfill or marine environment. But based on its composition, Coates says, it should begin to degrade in water after several months, a time period that would exceed the useful life of most single use products. Poly(polypropylene succinate) breaks down into propylene glycol and succinic acid, nontoxic materials that are further reduced to CO2 and water when ingested by microbes.

“If you had to eat polymer degradation products, these would be the ones you want,” Coates says.

It’s unlikely that poly(polypropylene succinate) will ever cost less on a pound-for-pound basis than conventional polyethylene, but its unique crystalline structure suggests it could perform better than its petroleum counterpart. If so, bioplastics manufacturers may someday be able to compete with today’s plastics industry by making things like milk jugs with significantly less material than petroleum-based plastics.

Uphill Battle

Short of sweeping government regulations that place a price on carbon or require all plastics to biodegrade, bioplastics will have to find ways to outcompete conventional plastics if they are ever going to fill more than niche applications.

It’s an uphill battle — but one that another once-niche product, the solar panel, is increasingly winning.

In 2007 solar power made up less than 0.1 percent of U.S. electricity generation. Thanks to ingenuity and innovation, the price of photovoltaic modules has dropped from US$4 per watt to US$0.50 per watt, making solar the fastest growing source of electricity in the country.

Might those working on bioplastics see a similar sea change? Ultimately, a lot will likely ride not only on how well their products break down, but on how much they can break down conventional plastic’s competitive edge.View Ensia homepage

Creative Commons

This piece was originally published on Ensia, a magazine showcasing environmental solutions in action, under the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota with support from major foundations and private individuals. 

Editor’s note: Marc Hillmyer is a resident fellow of the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment, which publishes Ensia.

Related on F&O:

The World’s Largest Electronic Waste Dump, photo essay by Tyrone Siu, Reuters, July, 2015
Chris Wood: Natural Security, Facts and Opinions column  (paywall)

contributor_phil_mckenna

Phil McKenna is a freelance writer interested in the convergence of fascinating individuals and intriguing ideas. He primarily writes about energy and the environment with a focus on the individuals behind the news. His work appears in The New York Times, Smithsonian, WIRED, Audubon, New Scientist, Technology Review, MATTER and NOVA, where he is a contributing editor. 

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Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal, of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded by you, our readers. We do not carry advertising or “branded content,” or solicit donations from foundations or causes. Support us with a subscription (click here for our subscribe page) or a donation:

 

 

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