Plastic is all over the place. It is convenient, versatile, and long-lasting. It does, however, generate a significant amount of waste and pollution. Plastic, in addition to contributing to waste buildup in the environment, also contributes to climate change due to its heavy reliance on fossil fuels and fossil-based feedstock.
More than 400 million tons of plastic are manufactured each year in the world, with packaging accounting for a third of that. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the issue by necessitating the use of disposable masks, PPE, and single-use items to protect key staff and preserve hygiene. By 2050, there would be more plastic in the water than fish, if we continue on our present trajectory.
Nonetheless, the need for change is growing. Consumers, politicians, and advocacy groups are rising pressure on the plastics industry and major brands to develop and use environmentally friendly alternatives. The chemicals industry needs to kick its oil habit for good and adopt new technology to build innovative solutions in order to enable a circular, environmentally friendly future.
Much of the plastics we use today have a variety of negative effects on the environment. Not only does plastic take a long time to degrade – and in many instances, it never does – but trillions of bits of plastic end up in nature every year, whether deliberately or accidentally. Unfortunately, this results in an influx of toxic micro- and nanoplastic into our environment.
If more plastic waste is incinerated, with energy recycling in the better cases (rather than landfilling), and each kg of plastic incinerated emits 2.5 kg CO2, the overall plastic CO2 footprint is approaching 1 billion tons. This involves pollution from the energy-intensive chemical processes used to make plastics.
Petroleum, a major contributor to climate change, is the primary feedstock for the manufacture of plastics, accounting for more than 99 percent of the 400 million tons manufactured annually.
Technology is helping to develop long-term alternatives to fossil-fuel-based plastics. Plant-based sugars (glucose) have been used as a feedstock in place of fossil fuels, resulting in a lot of research and development.
Polyethylene furanoate (PEF), a plant-based, closed-loop recyclable, and slow-degradable plastic substitute, is an example of this. PEF has a variety of performance properties that make it a better component for bottles, packaging, and textiles than PET, in addition to the environmental benefits.
PEF will maintain the integrity and consistency of the product inside the packaging for longer periods of time due to lower gas permeability to carbon dioxide (CO2), oxygen (O2), and humidity, eliminating food waste and extending usable shelf life. PEF is also more durable and has greater heat resistance and barrier properties, allowing for thinner and lighter packaging.
Furthermore, while PEF’s end-of-life choices are not planned to include biodegradation, the fact that it degrades in the environment within years is a function we call fate-in-nature.
PEF degrades to CO2, water, and biomass in 250-400 days at 58 degrees centigrade in soil, according to an accelerated report on industrial compostability conducted by OWS in Gent, Belgium. PET, on the other hand, is expected to take 300 to 500 years to degrade.
A multi-year field trial is also being performed with the University of Amsterdam to see how quickly PEF biodegrades in natural environments (the Netherlands). When subjected to weather and other environmental factors, initial findings indicate that deterioration occurs during the first year.
This does not happen when PEF is used normally; it only happens when PEF comes into contact with soil and the fungi and bacteria that live there. This is critical for materials that (unintentionally) end up in nature, as it prevents the endless accumulation of PET in the atmosphere over decades, if not centuries.
One of the main factors in developing a completely sustainable material is its performance properties. Along with increased legislation to prohibit single-use, non-recyclable plastics, new technologies are emerging to ensure that plastics can be reused repeatedly before their lifecycle is complete.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that at least 20% of plastic packaging can be replaced with reusable systems. As a result, reusing plastic is related to a decrease in total plastic use. Simply put, reusing a plastic bottle ten times cuts down on plastic use (and waste) by 90%.
Making new ideas work with existing processes
It is also vital that technologies develop materials that can be recycled in existing systems. Contamination from poorly recyclable items entering recycling facilities is one of the most significant challenges that recyclers face.
This can make recycling products more difficult. PET (polyethylene terephthalate) is a widely used plastic component. It is widely used in bottles and packaging, among other applications, and is widely regarded as a recyclability champion by many.
Despite this, PET applications frequently require other materials with better barrier properties to protect products that are particularly sensitive or require a longer shelf life – something that PET packaging cannot provide on its own. The materials commonly used for this function, such as polyamides, which are primarily used in colored bottles, have poor recyclability.
Much effort has been expended to ensure that PEF can be processed in existing recycling streams. Because they have similar chemical properties to PET, they can even be recycled together.
PEF is compatible with PET mechanical recycling assets, and it has been shown that when treated as part of the PET recycling stream, PEF has a much lower environmental effect on haze and other properties of the resulting rPET content than other barrier materials. More significantly, PEF products, like PET, can be recycled entirely on their own in a closed-loop method.
Competition is not always prevalent
It’s important to keep in mind that PEF isn’t always in direct competition with PET. PEF can be used in applications that benefit from the material’s unique superior properties, such as high barrier films and specialty bottles.
These are likely to be applications where PET or other polymers do not have the right properties to be the material of choice, and where PEF can provide simpler solutions made of a single material in comparison with more costly solutions like multilayer bottles (non-recyclable) and aluminum or glass.
However, as PEF output scales up, the material’s cost will drop, allowing more applications to benefit from the material’s sustainable and circularity-enabling properties.
Plastic isn’t the issue; it’s how it’s made, used, and discarded that is. Plastics are unlikely to go away; in reality, single-use plastics have been deemed entirely appropriate due to hygiene concerns during this pandemic. We should, however, pave the way for sustainable, circular solutions through technical advancements and a desire for a greener environment.