Plastics made from plants could be the answer to the world’s waste problem

Oh, well, that is depressing. Image: Getty.

Plastics are incredibly useful materials with extremely diverse properties, allowing a multitude of different applications that benefit our lives.

Bottles and forks aside, in the medical field alone plastics have been used for artificial heart valves, medical implants and devices, controlled drug release, specialist surfaces and coatings that repel water, organic batteries – the list is endless.

But, with marine plastic debris estimated to reach 250m tonnes by 2025, governments across the globe are starting to think about how to overcome this significant problem.

A fundamental part of this issue is that non-sustainable, single-use plastics account for up to 40 per cent of global plastic production. This equates to around 128m tonnes. The vast majority of these plastics have low recycling rates and do not biodegrade in an acceptable time span – polypropylene can take millennia to break down properly.

Worse still, if these plastics find their way into the marine environment, the motion of the sea along with sunlight can cause the plastics to fracture into small particulates called “microplastics”.

The presence of macro and microplastics in our oceans has been shown to have a detrimental effect on marine life. But the potential effect on human health is much less well understood.

A ban on the production of cosmetics and personal care products containing plastic microbeads came into effect at the beginning of the year. Realistically, though, this only accounts for an estimated 680 tonnes of microplastics per year in the UK.

The problem with plastics

It is clear then that plastic waste is a complicated problem – spanning economics, sustainability, social pressures and recycling infrastructure in both developed and developing countries. But while it’s widely known that plastics can be an issue for the environment, what isn’t often known is that the persistence of plastics in the environment is actually closely linked to how they are made.

The overwhelming majority of plastics are made using oil-based materials, meaning that, by their chemical nature, many plastics have no oxygen content. This makes them very hydrophobic (water hating) and, as such, it is very difficult for common bacteria or enzymes to break them down if they enter the environment.

Over the past few decades, there has been increased awareness of our dependence on a limited oil supply and this has driven research into alternative, sustainable sources of chemicals. In particular, the concept of using bio-based materials as a resource rather than oil-based materials has really gained momentum. Sustainable bio-based material can be waste crops, waste wood, waste food – in fact, any waste biological matter.

Most importantly, these natural, bio-based materials can easily be broken down into smaller chemical building blocks – called “platform molecules” – which in turn, can be used to make other useful chemicals, including plastics.


Nature’s building blocks

Using these platform molecules, the Green Chemistry Centre of Excellence at the University of York, has been working with the plastics industry to create a new generation of bio-based polyesters. These are often used to make fibres for clothing, as well as films and containers for liquids and foods. The resulting materials are entirely plant based, recyclable and – importantly – fully biodegradable.

Aside from sustainability, the huge benefit of using biomass as a resource is the high quantity of oxygen that is incorporated into nature’s chemical structures (celluose, glucose etc). By using bio-based materials to make bio-based plastics, the oxygen content is kept in the material. The hope is that by having a high oxygen content, the bio-based plastics will have high, but controlled biodegradability. This means that the bio-based plastic can totally and safely break down into benign starting materials.

But although this new generation of sustainable plastics is a huge step forward, and a compostable plastic is of huge benefit, this is by no means the end goal for all bio-based plastics.

Circular economy

The circular economy is all about keeping resources in a constant loop, reusing and recycling them as many times as possible. This helps to minimise waste and reduce the need for brand new resources.

Treating plastic waste as a resource rather than a problem is an important change than needs to happen over the coming decades. This will help to preserve our remaining chemical materials, as well as protect our environment.

Enough plastic is thrown away each year to circle the earth four times. Image: Pexels.

Plastics are a fundamental part of modern society and they are here to stay. Ultimately, society has to move away from oil-based products towards sustainable bio-based alternatives. But regardless of whether a plastic is oil-based or plant-based, the biggest impact you can have on the life cycle of a plastic product is to reuse and recycle it.

As a consumer, this means you have a choice and the power to make a positive impact. Find out where your nearest plastic waste recycling point is and look to promote home collection and the proper recycling of all types of plastic waste.

The ConversationSo next time you use the last of the ketchup, help to preserve our resources by making sure your plastic waste stays in the recycling loop.

James William Comerford, Postdoctoral Research Associate, University of York.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

“Stop worrying about hairdressers”: The UK government has misdiagnosed its productivity problem

We’re going as fast as we can, here. Image: Getty.

Gonna level with you here, I have mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, I’m a huge fan of schadenfreude, so learning that it the government has messed up in a previously unsuspected way gives me this sort of warm glow inside. On the other hand, the way it’s been screwing up is probably making the country poorer, and exacerbating the north south divide. So, mixed reviews really.

Here’s the story. This week the Centre for Cities (CfC) published a major report on Britain’s productivity problem. For the last 200 years, ever since the industrial revolution, this country has got steadily richer. Since the financial crash, though, that seems to have stopped.

The standard narrative on this has it that the problem lies in the ‘long tail’ of unproductive businesses – that is, those that produce less value per hour. Get those guys humming, the thinking goes, and the productivity problem is sorted.

But the CfC’s new report says that this is exactly wrong. The wrong tail: Why Britain’s ‘long tail’ is not the cause of its productivity problems (excellent pun, there) delves into the data on productivity in different types of businesses and different cities, to demonstrate two big points.

The first is that the long tail is the wrong place to look for productivity gains. Many low productivity businesses are low productivity for a reason:

The ability of manufacturing to automate certain processes, or the development of ever more sophisticated computer software in information and communications have greatly increased the output that a worker produces in these industries. But while a fitness instructor may use a smartphone today in place of a ghetto blaster in 1990, he or she can still only instruct one class at a time. And a waiter or waitress can only serve so many tables. Of course, improvements such as the introduction of handheld electronic devices allow orders to be sent to the kitchen more efficiently, will bring benefits, but this improvements won’t radically increase the output of the waiter.

I’d add to that: there is only so fast that people want to eat. There’s a physical limit on the number of diners any restaurant can actually feed.

At any rate, the result of this is that it’s stupid to expect local service businesses to make step changes in productivity. If we actually want to improve productivity we should focus on those which are exporting services to a bigger market.  There are fewer of these, but the potential gains are much bigger. Here’s a chart:

The y-axis reflects number of businesses at different productivities, shown on the x-axis. So bigger numbers on the left are bad; bigger numbers on the right are good. 

The question of which exporting businesses are struggling to expand productivity is what leads to the report’s second insight:

Specifically it is the underperformance of exporting businesses in cities outside of the Greater South East that causes not only divergences across the country in wages and standards of living, but also hampers national productivity. These cities in particular should be of greatest concern to policy makers attempting to improve UK productivity overall.

In other words, it turned out, again, to the north-south divide that did it. I’m shocked. Are you shocked? This is my shocked face.

The best way to demonstrate this shocking insight is with some more graphs. This first one shows the distribution of productivity in local services business in four different types of place: cities in the south east (GSE) in light green, cities in the rest of the country (RoGB) in dark green, non-urban areas in the south east in purple, non-urban areas everywhere else in turquoise.

The four lines are fairly consistent. The light green, representing south eastern cities has a lower peak on the left, meaning slightly fewer low productivity businesses, but is slightly higher on the right, meaning slightly more high productivity businesses. In other words, local services businesses in the south eastern cities are more productive than those elsewhere – but the gap is pretty narrow. 

Now check out the same graph for exporting businesses:

The differences are much more pronounced. Areas outside those south eastern cities have many more lower productivity businesses (the peaks on the left) and significantly fewer high productivity ones (the lower numbers on the right).

In fact, outside the south east, cities are actually less productive than non-urban areas. This is really not what you’d expect to see, and no a good sign for the health of the economy:

The report also uses a few specific examples to illustrate this point. Compare Reading, one of Britain’s richest medium sized cities, with Hull, one of its poorest:

Or, looking to bigger cities, here’s Bristol and Sheffield:

In both cases, the poorer northern cities are clearly lacking in high-value exporting businesses. This is a problem because these don’t just provide well-paying jobs now: they’re also the ones that have the potential to make productivity gains that can lead to even better jobs. The report concludes:

This is a major cause for concern for the national economy – the underperformance of these cities goes a long way to explain both why the rest of Britain lags behind the Greater South East and why it performs poorly on a

European level. To illustrate the impact, if all cities were as productive as those in the Greater South East, the British economy would be 15 per cent more productive and £225bn larger. This is equivalent to Britain being home to four extra city economies the size of Birmingham.

In other words, the lesson here is: stop worrying about the productivity of hairdressers. Start worrying about the productivity of Hull.


You can read the Centre for Cities’ full report here.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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