Plastic. It’s everywhere.
Despite its advantages as a material—versatility, low cost, and ease with which it can be molded into different shapes of varying strengths—plastic is a huge source of waste and pollution. A lot of it ends up in our oceans, and is now even ending up in our own digestive tracts!
Americans generated an estimated 35.4 million tons of plastic in 2017, and in recent years, a substantial amount of plastic destined for recycling has ended up in landfills. The disposal rate of single-use plastic is also on the rise. In the wake of COVID-19, a study estimated 129 billion single-use plastic face masks and 65 billion single-use gloves are being thrown away every month.
We should, of course, be taking all necessary health precautions, but we can only ignore our plastic problem for so long. After all, what does throwing something “away” really mean?
One way to address the problem is by building the principles of the circular economy into business best practices. Its core principles are to create products that break down easily and safely in the environment, to reuse and recycle whenever economically feasible, and to use renewable sources of matter and energy. Ironically, the same properties that make plastic useful are what make them a challenge for the circular economy.
Break It Down For Me
Plastics are organic polymers with high plasticity or “moldability.” Organic in this context is the chemist’s version: an organic compound containing carbon-hydrogen and/or carbon-carbon bonds. A polymer is any substance made of repeating units, and organic polymers are a broader category than just plastics, encompassing DNA, proteins, and carbohydrates, for example.
The bonds making up most plastics are stable under many conditions, which results in durability and a long shelf life. However, this is a double-edged sword, as plastic is difficult to break down. In many cases, breaking plastic down causes even bigger problems, releasing microplastics, carcinogens, greenhouse gases, and other hazards into the environment. Many plastics are also petrochemicals or petroleum byproducts. Petroleum is the quintessential non-renewable energy source – once you’ve used it up, it’s gone. Traditional plastics fail to meet the goals of a circular economy on pretty much every front.
Bioplastic vs. Biodegradable Plastic
Much research focuses on finding suitable replacements for plastics, and ideally ones that are made from renewable resources and break down safely. Some of the best renewable resources are biological: living materials that can provide an endless supply of biomass if cultivated properly. Plastics that are made at least partly from biological matter are called bioplastics.
Also, there are biodegradable plastics—plastics that naturally decompose via bacteria and other microorganisms. Bioplastic and biodegradable plastic are not the same. It is very possible to have a bioplastic that doesn’t break down, and a biodegradable plastic that isn’t biological in origin.
Of course, there is an overlap between the two. For example, scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison created a computer chip that replaces silicon with nanocellulose, which is a completely biodegradable plastic sourced from trees. Others are creating polyesters from vegetable oil and polymers from broken-down plant sugars. Research groups are even creating plastic-eating bacteria, turning nonbiodegradable plastics into biodegradable ones (by definition). Despite these innovations, there is still a lot to learn within the field: the rate of biodegradation, cost-effectiveness, the long-term viability of new plastics, etc.
Sustainability and the Allergy Amulet
If you’ve read about our technology, you might already know the Allergy Amulet sensor is based on molecularly imprinted polymers—yep, plastics. Can the Amulet be made of bioplastics or biodegradable polymers? We’re exploring these options as we speak! The Amulet has to respond to target allergenic ingredients with high sensitivity and selectivity, which restricts both the choice of polymer and the method of creating the polymer. That doesn’t preclude sustainable plastics, although it does present an added scientific challenge. Fortunately, the amount of polymer needed per test is so minuscule that its environmental impact is negligible. The cartridge containing the chip is a much larger source of plastic, and we aim to build principles of the circular economy into product design as much as possible while maintaining our highest priority: the integrity and reliability of the sensor.
Companies building the principles of a circular economy into their business model are not only doing the planet a favor, they’re building a more resilient and sustainable supply chain. Each year, we convert over 100 billion tons of raw material into products, yet less than 10 percent cycles back into the economy. We’d like to help change that.
Ours is a small part to play, but we’re working to play our part to advance the circular economy.
– Nazir & the Allergy Amulet Team