The shifting tides of plastic pollution
Environmental challenges remain a top priority after COP26, with plastic pollution high on the agenda. With some progress made on carbon-cutting targets at last year’s conference, hopes are high that the upcoming UN Environment Assembly will lead to the signing of a global treaty on tackling key issues – especially curbing the amount of plastic entering our oceans. According to recent estimates, between 4.8 and 12.7 million tonnes of plastic enter global waterways each year and without urgent intervention, volumes of plastics are currently expected to outweigh fish by 2040. But while enhancing commitments to tackling plastic problems is vital, it’s also clear doing so will require a varied range of practical solutions; and this is where green technology comes in. Pioneers across the scientific and tech sectors are working to address pollution on multiple fronts; putting the worldwide global green technology and sustainability market on track to hit over $70 billion by 2030. Reducing and preventing harm from the effects of plastics is integral to these efforts; to the point that Duke University has even created an inventory of the leading innovations for companies, governments and individuals to harness, numbering 52 at last count. Here, we’ll be exploring four areas where tech ingenuity is making strides in the battle against plastics:
Collect and protect
Removing plastics from oceans and waterways is one of the most direct ways to tackle the crisis, and with the overwhelming amount of pollution, there is huge scope for sophisticated technology to lend a hand with waste management. For example, Dutch start-up The Great Bubble Barrier has been collecting plastic waste from rivers since its formation in 2016. By running a perforated pipe along a riverbed and blasting air through it, the company creates a bubble barrier that stops plastic and pushes it to the surface. The river’s current then carries the waste plastic towards a large bin. After numerous trials – including across a 200m stretch of the Dutch river IJssel – the first long-term Bubble Barrier was installed in Amsterdam in 2019. Initiatives operating at a larger scale include the Seabin. After raising US$276k through crowdfunding in 2016, founders Andrew Turton and Pete Ceglinski brought their product to life. As the name implies, the Seabin is a cylindrical ‘bin’ that sits just below sea level, filtering plastics, microplastics and even surface oil out of waterways. By 2019, there were 719 Seabins operational in over 50 countries, each able to capture half a tonne of waste plastics every year.
Breaking plastic pollution down
Globally, 300 million tonnes of plastic is produced each year – much of it single-use – so thinking of alternatives is also key to reducing the negative impact and making plastics more environmentally friendly. UK start-up Polymateria, for instance, has developed a ‘biotransformation’ technology that alters the properties of single-use plastics so they can biodegrade naturally. Polymateria’s plastic breaks down in around a year, leaving no microplastics behind; a normal plastic bottle, in comparison, takes 450 years to degrade. Recently, Formosa Plastics signed a deal worth nearly $100million to have the additive added to their plastics. Elsewhere, there is a whole raft of companies focusing on reinventing and replacing single-use plastics with edible alternatives that are far less impactful on the natural environment. From cutlery made out of potatoes to cocktail cups made out of seaweed, many innovators are making items that are often produced using plastic products greener and consumable. E6PR, for instance, has even created a biodegradable six-pack ring for cans that marine life can safely consume to help tackle common issues with plastic packaging.
Invisible to the Eye
Microplastics present a less visible – but potentially more dangerous – threat. These tiny plastic shards can be 150 times smaller than human hair and have been found nearly everywhere on earth – including in our drinking water, food chain, and even Arctic ice cores. Though the study of microplastics is still at an early stage, recent studies have suggested the presence of chemical additives could lead to serious human health conditions, including cancer or reproductive disruption. New solutions to these problems are already being developed. Scientists at the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland have created a plant-derived nanocellulose mesh that can filter out particles of plastic as small as 0.1 micrometres in diameter. The plant-based filter causes these particles to naturally bind together, making them easier to extract. Forward-looking individuals are also experimenting with potential innovations. Fionn Ferreira, a 20-year-old Irish student, is one budding pioneer who has created a homemade ferrofluid – a magnetic mixture of oil and powdered rust – that is 88% successful in removing microplastics from water. Ferreira scooped top prize at the 2019 Google Science Fair for the invention.
Extracting these plastics is only the first stage of the recycling journey. Recycling breathes new life into discarded plastics and can make them surprisingly hardwearing. UK-based MacRebur turns end-of-life plastics into asphalt for roads. According to the company, each mile of road uses the equivalent weight of 1.19 million single-use plastic bags. Similarly, Columbian company Conceptos Plásticos tackles another piece of major infrastructure – housing. The project uses lesser-recycled plastics to create Lego-like building blocks that easily slot together to create modular homes. Speaking of Lego, the Danish company announced in 2021 that it had successfully found a way to make its iconic bricks from PET plastic, from discarded plastic bottles. It hopes to have the new bricks on shelves in the next two years. Nike also continued its push towards carbon neutrality when it announced that its 21/22 football shirts would be made from at least 95% recycled polyester fabric, salvaged from recycled plastic bottles. With two-in-three consumers willing to pay more for environmentally-friendlier fashion, creating clothes out of these recycled materials allows the brand to both harness and meet sustainable demand. Like all issues relating to climate change, no one solution will repair the damage of plastics in our waterways. As global leaders gather to discuss the next phase of environmental action, it will be crucial to keep pushing ahead with green technology developments that make targets easier to achieve, in addition to helping clean up the planet. Interested in sustainability? Read more about what businesses can do to tackle digital pollution, or check out the first of our series on ways to live greener; taking inspiration from Veganuary.