A technology startup near Ontario’s leafy border with Michigan says it has the answer to the world’s plastic pollution problem: sawdust.
Origin Materials is getting ready to pay sawmills in the area $20 a ton for the scraps left over in the process of turning logs into lumber, which it will use to make recyclable plastic bottles that remove carbon-dioxide from the sky because they’re made from sustainably sourced wood waste. Nestle SA, Danone SA and PepsiCo Inc. plan to sell water in Origin’s recyclable plant-based bottles in early 2022.
It’s one of the many unconventional ways conceived by scientists to reduce the world’s reliance on plastics made from petroleum, which emit as much climate-damaging pollutants as 189 coal plants each year from production to incineration. Other so-called bio-based plastics are being developed from sugar, corn, algae, seaweed, sewage and even dead beetles.
“Consumers are caring about plastic in a way that they haven’t in a long time, maybe ever,” said John Bissell, 34, who founded Origin Materials in 2008 and has spent 10 years working as an engineer developing alternative plastics that don’t contribute to climate change. “Everyday things like bottles and clothing can now become carbon negative, but remain otherwise functionally identical.”
That may be true in theory, but phasing out petroleum-based plastics will be an uphill battle. Use of the material has become so ingrained for societies around the world that about half of all new oil demand through 2040 will come from petrochemicals, an industry that relies on plastics for most of its business, according to BloombergNEF. The $500 billion global plastics market is responsible for 5% of greenhouse gas emissions, Friends of the Earth data show. Some projections see that ratio tripling in the next 30 years.
Plant-based plastics, especially varieties made from sugar cane, are starting to seep into the mainstream as companies try to respond to consumers who are increasingly angry about the ecologically devastating impact of plastics. London-based Bulldog sells its male skincare products in plastic tubes made from sugar cane. Last year, Danish toymaker Lego A/S started including botanical pieces, like leaves, bushes and trees, made entirely of plant-based plastics in its box sets.
It’ll take getting big food and beverage companies on board to really alter the equation. Nestle alone produces 1.7 million tons of plastic packaging a year, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, enough to make over 51 billion bottles. Beverage makers like Coca-Cola Co. and Pepsi use a lot more than that. Coca-Cola rolled out its so-called plantbottle in 2009, but it’s still 70% petroleum based.
“There is no doubt that awareness around plastic waste has become more prominent in the last two years,” said Simon Lowden, president of PepsiCo’s global snacks group, which announced in 2016 it would seek to reduce absolute greenhouse gas emissions by 20% by 2030.
As part of a strategy to find more sustainable packaging, Pepsi last year joined Nestle and Danone’s NaturALL Bottle Alliance to find ways to reduce the carbon footprint of beverage bottles. All three plan to buy 100% plant-derived bottles from Origin Materials when its Ontario plant gets up and running at the end of 2020 with a starting capacity of 300 million bottles a year.
Origin Materials developed a way to extract cellulose from wood waste to make para-xylene, a hydrocarbon usually derived from oil used to manufacture PET, one of the most common plastics today. Since trees and plants naturally capture CO2 through photosynthesis, using sustainably sourced sawdust and wood chips more than offsets any pollutants released in the manufacturing process, according to Bissell.
However ingenious the techniques to make plant-based bottles may get, though, they’re still plastic. Not all varieties are recyclable or biodegradable. And ultimately unless they are recycled — and worldwide only one out of every five bottles is — plastic bottles inevitably end up in landfills where they may spew pollutants into the air, or worse, find their way into the oceans where most could take hundreds of years to degrade, killing birds, fish and whales in the process. When incinerating, bio-based plastics may be little better than oil-based ones because the carbon stored in them is released.
Since David Attenborough’s Blue Planet 2 documentary in 2017 showed albatrosses feeding their chicks plastic by accident, plastic’s environmental impact has “gone from a niche topic of conversation and engagement to something that features in all our conversations,” said Mark Lancelott, a sustainability expert at PA Consulting Group Ltd.
The London-based consultancy has seen a “significant increase” in requests from food and beverage companies on how to manage plastic waste.
After the European Union and New York announced bans this year on certain single-use plastics, many companies are getting nervous about how far those regulations could go, added Katherine Lampen, a London-based partner in Deloitte’s sustainability advisory team, which advises big consumer packaged good companies.
“They are concerned that the future viability of their business could be reduced due to a heavy reliance on the material,” she said.
Skeptics of the bioplastic push say they’re not resolving the underlying problem. It would be better to focus on improving rates of reuse of plastic or glass packaging, with waste collected by the producer, according to Juliet Phillips, an ocean campaigner at the Environmental Investigation Agency, a non-governmental organization.
If production of plant-based plastics were to be scaled up, “land-use demands could bring about competition with agriculture, accelerating deforestation concerns and biodiversity loss,” she said.
For Bissell at Origin Materials, the plastic industry has become too important for global commerce to work on only one front to improve sustainability, especially considering soaring demand in emerging markets where reuse programs tend to be underdeveloped.
“The end of life of plastics is really important. I’m not too sure that I’d argue that it’s more important than climate change. That feels like maybe not the right trade off to make,” he said.
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