The plastic of the future, one of the materials most used by the 20th-century humans, can be green, smart, vegetal-based and high-tech

In recent years, the plastic industry has been developing new technologies more rapidly to create more sustainable products. Although plastic is fully recyclable, policies that will cause the waste to fully return to the production chain are still lacking. With no new practices, most of what is discarded will be disposed of in landfills, dumps and even the oceans. Thus, finding balance between production and conservation of the environment is the current challenge of industry and public managers.

After all, plastic has been part of our lives for ages. At the beginning of the 20th century, between 1907 and 1909, chemist Leo Baekeland, a Belgian based in the US, developed the product that made plastic popular throughout the world. His creation, bakelite, was developed from the process of polymerization – a set of chemical reactions that binds simple molecules (monomers) into more robust and resistant structures, the polymers. From then on, the main raw material for plastic is oil.

Even earlier, humans looked for materials that could be shaped and resistant to heat and pressure. Plastikos is a word from ancient Greece and means flexible. At that time, however, the Greeks had a sticky resin of vegetable origin, which was extracted from the trees in the region. Today, the manufacturing process is far more complex.
Plástico. Crédito: Jon Moore/Unsplash

Baekeland started with bakelite, and then, all other types of plastic we know arose. Some of these types of plastic are used for manufacturing clothing such as polyester (created in 1932) and nylon (in 1938). You can find other types in your home, such as PVC (1933) and Teflon (1941), or even inside the body, such as silicon, whose first version was marketed in 1943.

The issue of plastic: improper disposal harms the environment

According to a survey by scientists of the University of Georgia published in the journal Science Advances, humankind has produced no less than 8.3 billion tons of plastic. Although it has the potential to be up to 100% recyclable, the material, at least its most used version, is not a biodegradable substance.

This is the problem. Although all kinds of plastic can be recycled, according to the study, only 9% of all plastic produced has been recycled. Of the remainder, 12%, was incinerated, and 79% accumulated in landfills or the natural environment

Today, according to a study by the UK Government Office for Science, there are 5.25 million pieces of plastic in seawater, at least. Moreover, according to the World Economic Forum in Davos, if nothing is done, by 2050 the sum of all plastic in the seas could be higher than the biomass of fish.

New types of plastic

There is a natural demand for the development of innovative types of plastic. The environmental and economic impacts are huge: up to US$ 120 billion annually is lost to the economy due to inadequate disposal of plastic packaging, according to the The New Plastics Economy report.

That’s why global companies, innovative entrepreneurs and universities focused on technology and sustainability are creating alternatives to produce environmentally friendly materials and change consumer behavior.

Learn about the four new types of plastic:

Green Plastic: the sugarcane revolution

20 years ago, the idea of producing plastic from renewable raw materials gained ground. That idea became a reality in 2005, when researchers started studying the productive and commercial feasibility of this new product. At that time, petrochemical giants announced interest in technology – Braskem invested US$ 5 million only on researching. And that has worked! Within five years, the company launched the world’s first commercially available green polyethylene plant, located in Triunfo, Rio Grande do Sul.

The plant has received an investment of US$290 million and has an annual production capacity of 200,000 tons of green polyethylene. This plastic is produced from the same input as sugar and alcohol: sugarcane. Since it is a plant that adapts well to all regions of the country, with high production capacity and low handling costs, its use is expected to increase. Currently, only 65,000 hectares (or 0.02% of arable areas in the country) are dedicated to the product.
Usina de plástico verde. Crédito: Divulgação/Braskem

Ethanol is the raw material for the green plastic. This is how it works: ethanol is dehydrated and transformed into green ethene that, through a chemical process, is polymerized resulting in polyethylene – the most widely used plastic in the world. This polymer is used for the most diverse applications such as packaging, piping and even toys.

This year, Lego, the toy manufacturer, entered into the green plastic purchase to compose their pieces. The material is already used by the industry in several functions, such as high- or low-density polyethylene, and has even gone to space: NASA’s International Space Station uses it as a raw material for a 3D printer to make tools and parts for astronauts.

Products made of green plastic are certified with the I’m green seal. It is not a question of being a biodegradable product, but the use of the term “green” has its reasons: in addition to being produced from renewable resources, green plastic can also capture carbon in the atmosphere. The Triunfo plant, at its maximum capacity (200 thousand tons), captures more than 600 thousand tons of CO2.

Cassava-based Plastic: 100% biodegradable

Not only sugarcane can be turned into plastic. There are also solutions for creating polymers from starch-rich vegetables, such as corn, beetroot, potato and even cassava. This root is the raw material for the packaging produced by CBPak.

In 2002, after realizing the need to find a sustainable solution to the destination of garbage, especially plastic, Cláudio Bastos spent five years developing the technology that can transform cassava starch into a substance that can be shaped like a packaging. What’s more, it’s a packaging that can be disposed of and quickly biodegraded.

The idea was to have a raw material from a renewable source and that could turn into a disposable packaging. “Our motivation was to absolutely understand that things would change, whether with green technology or any other way. Until they prove humans can live on Mars, we do not have a B-plan,” says Stelvio Mazza, the company’s general director.

There are two advantages of producing cassava-based bioplastics. The first is the source of the input: it is a renewable source and its impact on the carbon footprint is lower. “And cassava is widespread throughout the world, besides Brazil being its fourth largest producer. It is an abundant input and we can buy directly from the small producer,” explains Stelvio. The second advantage is related to after-consumption: the containers are compostable and can be deposited along with organic garbage, since they biodegrade within about 90 days.

On the other hand, price can affect product growth on a large scale. A bioplastic packaging unit produced by CBPak can cost up to 15 times more than one produced from conventional plastic. “Not only do we sell the packaging, it is an environmental solution in the form of packaging. Our challenge is to prove it to the consumer: that the product provides an environmental and image return,” argues the company’s CEO.
Embalagem CBPak. Crédito: Divulgação/CBPak

The proposition has been working. Today, CBPak sells packaging to companies such as Google and Facebook and its demand is greater than its own production capacity, even after the company’s plant in São Carlos (SP) moved to a larger plant in Rio de Janeiro.

For those who wonder if it is possible to eat the packaging, the answer is no. Although the product is entirely made from cassava, it is waterproofed after molding – it receives a film formed from the mixture of organic and non-organic resin, which makes up to 7% of the final product. Therefore, according to the company, bioplastic really is not fit for human consumption, but works very well as organic fertilizer.

Plastic changes color to alert consumers

The technical name is smart polymer, but the technology could be called chameleon plastic. It is a plastic that can be used in packaging and communicate information while changing its color. For example, when a food starts losing its quality, its biochemical composition releases or eliminates compounds that can be identified by the packaging.

“We are at the beginning of development, but we have already achieved concrete results in the lab. We chose to develop a color-changing polymer to indicate the preservation status of food through pH variation,” said Marcia Pires, a polymer science researcher at Braskem, in an interview with Let’s Talk Packaging.

The technology is based on a substance that works as an indicator. It is added to the polyolefin during plastic production and it is protected so as not to deteriorate or be eliminated at any stage when manufacturing or using the package. “Our technology is the combination of polymer formulation and indicator protection,” explained Pires.

According to the researcher, although the pH is the triggering activator for the indicator, it is possible to adapt the product to other features, such as temperature. The technology can be used in any type of plastic, including in medical and hospital equipment, such as in syringes.

No deadline has been set for the technology to reach the final consumer yet.

Molecular-recycling plastic – for good

A new type of polymer has emerged in the laboratory of Professor Eugene Chen, of the University of Colorado, and it can revolutionize the post-consumer stage of plastic. In an article published in the journal Science, the professor presented his solution: a substance with the same characteristics as conventional plastics, but 100% recycled, faster, cheaper and more efficient after a chemical process.

Chen and his team focus their work on developing alternatives with less ecological impact for products and chemical processes, as is the case of plastics. Thus, they put their efforts to produce an organic polymer that, after its consumption, can be processed back to its primary molecules, the monomers.
Plástico no laboratório. Crédito: Jaron Nix/Unsplash

“Synthetic polymers are successful for the same reason they are problematic. We love plastics because they’re durable and strong; that’s also why most of them don’t degrade in landfills”, Chen said in an interview to the Universidade do Colorado magazine.

These polymers are formed by long and extremely strong chemical bonding chains. Breaking and reusing them today is a complex procedure, with high costs of time and money. The new product presented by the scientist and his team can fully process the monomer break in a few minutes and without the use of toxic chemicals – which represents another ecological advantage.

“The compound commonly regarded as non-polymerizable becomes readily polymerizable through a trans-ring fusion, at room temperature and without solvents; thus, a high molecular weight polymer is produced. This makes it possible to repolymerize a truly virgin material for infinite repeated use,” the article says.

“Our material will be useful and will have the same properties as long-lasting plastics”, Chen concluded. For the time being, the compound has been tested in the lab only, and now the team aims to prove the commercial feasibility of the new plastic.

Content published in July 12, 2018

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