How UK’s Polymateria is thinking differently about plastic pollution

 

According to a study by the World Economic Forum, by 2050 our oceans will contain more plastic than fish, that’s worrying! There is increased global uproar to find a solution to this menace. Polymateria, a British Materials company is developing a plastic product that can naturally degrade in a process they call #Biotransformation.

My Interview with Niall Dunne C.E.O Polymateria Ltd

How is Polymateria thinking differently about the issue of plastic pollution?

By embracing reduction, reuse and recycling but adding a 4th “R”, which is redesigning of the materials at the point of manufacture, and in doing so targeting the types of plastic that are most likely to end up in the natural environment, these are called “polyolefins”.

Of the 32% of the plastic that ends up in the natural environment, polyolefins are the largest constituent at 31% of all plastics.

Courtesy, Polymateria ltd

Polyesters (your water/drinks bottles) get a lot of media attention but they are “only” 10% of the materials we find in nature. So for all of these reasons we have commercialized focusing on polyolefins first.

Your company is working on redefining how plastic is designed and produced. Do you think plastic pollution is a design problem?

It’s the perfect combination of problems, design (of the materials themselves), (our consumer) behavior, and (lack of) infrastructure. Not all plastic materials are good candidates for our technology, polystyrene, and PVC as examples are toxic and shouldn’t wind up in the natural environment. So the first principle of design is to accept that everything winds up in the natural environment sooner or later anyway, so from a product stewardship perspective we should only design with “pure” materials capable of full and safe return to nature.

The second design consideration, is to give our human made infrastructure (recycling, waste to energy etc) every chance to happen, we do this by precisely time controlling exactly when our technology becomes active, allowing for the ideal end of life scenario, but accepting that if biodegradation is needed the materials won’t persist in nature as plastics of microplastics for hundreds of years.

Despite it being a closely guarded secret, “Secret squirrel stuff,” as you put it; give me a general idea of how BioTransformation Technology works?

The cornerstone of our Biotransformation technology is knowing how to destroy the hard crystalline region of the plastic structure.

If you don’t do this you create #microplastics and this is why other technologies have failed.

What we create in the early stage of the biodegradation process is a grease or wax-like material. We then use a “synthetic” prebiotic to attract microbes, fungi and bacteria to fully consume the wax-like material so all you have left is CO2, water and biomass. It’s important that this happens in real-world conditions and not just in labs.

To ensure all of this is evidence and science-based we open-sourced our IP and launched a new standard with BSI to help breathe confidence back into industry, governments and NGOs, who were beginning to lose hope in innovation on this topic.

Additionally, the time controlled aspect allows for recycling and our unique “Recycle By” date empowers consumers to do the right thing and dispose of the materials responsibly.

Will Bio Transformation Technology be the magic bullet to the challenge posed by plastic pollution?

No. On big global issues such as plastic pollution and climate change there is no single silver bullet. The “magic bullet” tends to be more of a combination of improved science and increased collaboration and better more disruptive, even unusual partnerships. On both of these we try to set an example and ensure we work with people who share our values and want to actually solve the fugitive plastic problem, not just push agendas or let egos or competition get in the way of making real progress.

Our recent announcement with Indorama Ventures is an example of this: https://www.textileworld.com/textile-world/nonwovens-technical-textiles/2021/04/indorama-ventures-fibervisions-and-avgol-join-polymateria-global-in-partnership-to-bring-biotransformation-technology-to-polyolefin-fibers-and-nonwoven-fabrics/

Are you optimistic that plastic producing industries will embrace your biotransformation idea, because, if you have to transform plastic you will essentially have to work closely with them?

Some will, like Indorama above and also Clariant (now Aveint) our partners in South East Asia and India but for the most part I expect the industry will be paralyzed by the rising storm of expectation and will respond through inadequate promises and action.

Consumers, NGOs and ultimately policy will consign these businesses to the annals of history, but the first movers who are better at science-led efforts and collaboration will launch disruptive innovation and be on the right side of history.

Every minute, it is estimated that more than 2 million single-use plastic bags and over 1 million plastic bottles are distributed worldwide. Do you think biodegradable plastics are the future of packaging?

Only if they are both recyclable and biodegradable, we need to move beyond either/or. This was the original vision for the #CircularEconomy and we need to remind ourselves of this initial intent for harmony, between mother nature (our most powerful circular economy) and our efforts as humans to “close the loop”, whether through mechanical or chemical recycling.

Considering plastics are made from fossil fuels and have different toxic additives, how safe are transformed biodegradable plastics once exposed into the natural environment?

Great question. Polyolefins are an incredibly pure material and therefore good candidates for full and safe return to nature without any ecotox impacts on the natural environment. As mentioned above, ironically they are also the biggest source of “fugitive” plastic on earth. However other materials such as polystyrene, PVC etc are incredibly toxic and should just be banned in my opinion.

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