A British start-up’s innovation to tackle plastic pollution by decomposing the material into a wax that is digested by nature is making inroads in Asia.
Polymateria Ltd, which has a lab on Imperial College London’s campus, has struck a deal with a supplier to 7-Eleven convenience stores in Taiwan, Polymateria CEO Niall Dunne said in an interview.
The company has also inked a deal of up to US$100 million to license its technology to Formosa Plastics Corp (台塑), one of the world’s biggest petrochemical manufacturers.
“We’re targeting the type of plastic that’s most likely to wind up in nature with a solution that doesn’t need any composting technologies to biodegrade or capital expenditure,” Dunne said. “We’re focused on Asia since that’s where a lot of the fugitive plastic is coming from and there aren’t massive waste management systems in place.”
Godrej Consumer Products Ltd in India is also to start using Polymateria’s packaging beginning later this year, he said.
The start-up also has licensing agreements with other plastics producers in the Philippines and Malaysia.
The deals are part of the London start-up’s plan to tackle one of the world’s biggest waste problems: so-called fugitive plastic from snack wrappers, cups and shopping bags that finds its way into oceans and landfills.
The company says it is the first to offer a fully biodegradable solution that leaves no microplastics behind and does not require any special equipment to manufacture or biodegrade. Still, the technology is not without controversy, with some scientists calling for an approach that is based on reducing the use of plastics and recycling instead.
Polymateria’s technology uses about a dozen different chemicals, including rubbers, oils and desiccants, that are added to plastic during the manufacturing process. The additives can be adjusted to create thin films that cover food products or more rigid materials to make cups or drink pouches.
The products can be customized to essentially self-destruct after a certain time. The additives help break down plastic polymers and turn the plastic into a wax that is fully digested by natural bacteria and fungi.
The thinner packing materials can decompose in as little as 226 days in tests, Dunne said, and since the products use plastics that are processed by recycling plants today, they can also be reused.
By comparison, it takes about 1,000 years for a plastic bag to degrade in landfills.
In Taiwan, several 7-Eleven stores are now carrying cheese-baked rice meals in Polymateria’s disposable packaging. President Chain Store Corp (統一超商), which operates the outlets, plans to cut its use of disposable plastics to less than 20 percent of packaging by 2023, it said on its Web site.
Polymateria’s agreement with Formosa Plastics is more about tackling the problem at its source. The Taipei-based group is to use the technology to make resin pellets of food-grade polypropylene, a type of polymer used in consumer products, in its plants.
Formosa Plastics eventually plans to manufacture hundreds of thousands of tonnes of biodegradable resin that would be transformed into packaging materials starting from next year.
It is a key pillar of company’s plan to make all its polypropylene resins for packaging biodegradable by 2025, it said.
For Polymateria, which was founded in 2015, working with one of the world’s biggest petrochemical producers and its downstream suppliers is a must if it wants to get biodegradable products into consumers’ hands.
“You’re not going to see every petrochemical company committed to sustainable products and innovation. You need to make a judgement call on who is,” Dunne said. “We were impressed by their commitment by 2025 to have all their food-grade packaging transition to biodegradable materials. That’s a very strong statement that says they’re ready to change.”
Still, not everyone in the scientific community is convinced biodegradable plastics is the answer.
A group of independent scientific advisers to the European Commission released a report in December last year that concluded “biodegradable plastics aren’t a silver bullet,” while other scientists are concerned biodegradable plastics could even encourage littering.
Dunne said that while he agrees with the goal of reducing, reusing and recycling, Polymateria’s solution addresses an immediate problem that is not going away.
Moreover, retailers, swayed by customer sentiment, are demanding it, said Tosho Wang (王東章), CEO of South Plastic Industry Co (南部化成), which is supplying 7-Eleven with some of the disposable packaging.
“Recycling is our ultimate goal,” Wang said. “But if there are fish that escape the net, these products can still decompose in nature. Educating consumers to form habits to recycle will take time.”
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