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May 17th, 2020 by Steve Hanley
Single-use plastic soda and water bottles may be one of the worst ideas humans have ever come up with. Every year, nearly 300 million tons of them are produced, and the vast majority end up in landfills or the ocean after they are used. The single-use bottle could be seen as a token of a civilization gone mad for the sake of convenience.
Plastic waste is now found on remote islands thousands of miles away from the nearest communities. It is present in the snow atop the highest mountains and in the trenches that form the deepest parts of the oceans. It is in our drinking water, which means it is inside us.
For years, do-gooders and environmental activists have begged beverage companies to mend their profligate ways and begin to clean up the existential mess they have made, but the answer always is, “We are making too much money. We can’t afford to stop destroying the Earth.”
There are millions of plastics and virtually all of them are derived from oil — the complex compendium of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms that can be rearranged in almost infinite ways to make plastics that are either strong or soft, flexible or rigid, and clear or tinted. The one thing they all have in common is that once produced, they take decades or even centuries to decompose. They cost so much to recycle that it is cheaper to make new ones. But there may be a solution.
Avantium is a Dutch company that specializes in making industrial products that are not reliant on petroleum. Here is how the company describes itself on its corporate home page: “Avantium develops innovative chemistry technologies across industry value chains in order to produce chemicals and materials based on renewable feedstock instead of fossil resources.”
“Renewable feedstocks.” What does that mean, exactly? The short answer is “sugar.” The long answer is carbohydrates, which just to happen to contain the same carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms found in oil, just arranged differently. (The number of potential combinations of those three atom is in the tens of millions.) Sugars are the power source for most plant life.
Avantium says it has found ways to start with plant sugars and transform them into a plastic capable of standing up to carbonated beverages like soda and beer but which will also break down in as little as a year in a composter or 3 years if left exposed to the elements.
Coca Cola and Carlsberg are cooperating with Avantium to develop new drink packaging, which could be in stores as soon as 2023. Tom van Aken, CEO of Avantium, tells The Guardian that his company plans to make a major investment in plant-based plastic production by the end of this year. Other food and drink companies have also expressed an interest in the new technology. “This plastic has very attractive sustainability credentials because it uses no fossil fuels, and can be recycled — but would also degrade in nature much faster than normal plastics do,” Van Aken says.
The new packaging would be completely different from what beverage companies use today. Instead of a clear or tinted bottle, their products would come inside a cardboard container with a liner made of plant-based plastic. It may take the marketplace a while to adapt to the change, but milk and many other liquid foods are now sold in cardboard containers even though they used to come in glass bottles.
The company plans to start small, making a mere 5,000 tons of plant-based plastic a year until the suitability of the material is proven in actual use and the willingness of consumers to accept the new packaging can be assessed. At present, the source for the plant-based sugar will be corn, wheat, or beets, but in the future, any plants, even biowaste, could be used as a source. Photosynthesis basically comes down to turning organic materials into sugars using sunlight, so all growing things are a potential source of sugars that chemists can rearrange in the lab to create substitutes for plastics derived from oil.
The need to replace oil-based plastics is great and the time to do it is now. Avantium may be hold the key to driving one more stake through the heart of the fossil fuel industry.