It’s Time to Graduate from One-Time Use Plastic
August 1, 2023
Innovators Look for Alternatives as Our Landfills Overflow with Packaging Plastic
Plastic packaging is ubiquitous. It’s found in almost every developed nation’s kitchen. It covers and preserves food. It’s part of the mover’s go-to for protecting precious antique furniture. Supply chain management companies depend on shrink wrap to secure boxes on shipping pallets. It’s durable and permanent. We use it and toss it without a second thought.
In the coming-of-age 1967 Dustin Hoffmann classic movie, “The Graduate,” memorable career advice offered by a well-intended neighbor to the newly minted college grad Ben Braddock was “The future is plastics.” Critics said this sage counsel was also code for all things that needed to be changed. Change is constant and no longer the future of non-recyclable or biodegradable plastics.
The environmental effects of plastics are a never-ending topic, and it’s clear why urgent change is on the horizon. Every year, up to 12.7 million tons of plastic escape landfills, float down drains, and end up in our rivers and oceans, polluting our planet and harming wildlife.
The Consequences of Convenience
What makes this wafer-thin plastic so durable is a long-forgotten manufacturing marvel. It’s made from low-density polyethylene (LDPE), a durable plastic type that is not biodegradable. LDPE is easily made and affordable, and its utility enhances its appeal. But mitigating its impact is also a significant part of the overall environmental innovation overhaul needed to get us on track for global net zero climate goals.
What happens to shrink-wrap after it is discarded? As expected, it often ends up in landfills with other non-biodegradable waste products. Since LDPE takes years to decompose, it becomes part of an unwanted scenery. Over time — decades — it contributes to plastic waste accumulation and is associated with microplastic pollution. These microplastics enter ecosystems, harm wildlife, and potentially enter the food chain, posing risks to human health.
The packaging component of shipping needs to be fixed. Use and toss is the largest end-use market segment accounting for more than 40% of total plastic usage. Imagine if we harnessed our resources to address the need for pallet wrap (stretch wrap) to protect transported palletized items. That alone would be a considerable benefit. Thankfully, cleantech companies are now targeting the problem.
Generally, we point our finger at single-use plastics themselves as the culprits. Still, we must also look at how we deal with all types of plastic waste, especially pallet plastic products, and find ways to rid ourselves of these seemingly indestructible products.
Let’s Get Rid of Plastics Somehow
In some areas with waste-to-energy facilities — cogeneration — shrink wrap might be incinerated as part of waste disposal. While this may generate nonrenewable energy, the process releases carbon dioxide and other atmospheric pollutants. But incineration doesn’t eliminate plastic waste; it reduces it to ash that may contain harmful residues.
Recycling shrink wrap is challenging — perhaps near impossible. Some recycling facilities can process LDPE, and some companies specialize in recycling stretch and shrink films. There is even a possibility that if collected separately and sent to appropriate recycling facilities, shrink wrap can be reprocessed into new plastic products. Unfortunately, much of the shrink wrap ends up as environmental litter.
“Single-use plastic is the greatest symbol of our throwaway society. It is used once, then thrown and forgotten, and it causes everlasting pollution of our planet and enters our food chain with unknown health consequences,” explains Chief Technology Officer and Co-Founder Sharon Barak to Medika Life. We can’t escape using plastic. Our way to help the environment is to address the fundamentally unsustainable consumer habits by providing a technological solution for the throwaway society.”
Not One Environmental Hazard — A Series of Unfortunate Events
The production of shrink wrap and other plastics relies on fossil fuels. Beyond becoming part of the never disappearing waste pile, sheet plastic — shrink wrap — contributes to resource depletion and greenhouse gas emissions. Cutting down on shrink wrap alone won’t solve environmental problems, but it will certainly help.
Every stakeholder has a part to play. To reduce the environmental impact of shrink wrap and other plastic waste, there is a move to focus on reducing plastic usage, promoting proper waste management, encouraging recycling, and transitioning to sustainable alternatives over single-use plastics. Public policies encouraging responsible plastic use and waste management are also essential in reducing plastic pollution.
Already, 28 countries have laws to encourage reduced and greater recycling of discarded packaging. That is just the beginning. The US Environmental Protection Agency has issued numerous statements calling upon manufacturers to reduce their use of plastic packaging and increase recyclability. But Europe is setting the path for the world to follow.
A Worldwide Change — Europe As a Role Model
The European Commission’s target is to reduce 2018 levels of packaging waste by 15 percent per capita by 2040 across all Member States. This would lead to an overall waste reduction in the EU of some 37 percent without forcing new legislation.
Last year, Frans Timmermans, executive vice president for the European Green Deal, reinforced how serious Europe sees the need for change: “After tackling single-use plastics, we now take the next step on our way to a future without pollution. Our proposals today reduce packaging waste, promote reuse and refill, increase the use of recycled plastics, and make it easier to recycle packaging. European citizens are eager to be rid of overpackaging and unnecessarily bulky packages, and businesses are ready to move forward with sustainable, innovative packaging solutions and systems. We also clear up confusing claims around biobased and biodegradable plastics so that producers and consumers know under which conditions such plastics are truly environment-friendly and contribute to a green and circular economy.”
Science created plastics. And it can and should be leveraged to develop biodegradable plastics with minimal environmental impact during the production and degradation processes. This includes using sustainable and renewable sources as feedstock, reducing harmful chemicals in their synthesis, and tapping eco-friendly technologies to standardize biodegradable packaging in the market.
Enter Climate Tech Innovation
One company headquartered in Israel and now shipping alternative pallet shrink wrap to the world is cleantech enterprise Solutum Technologies, which seeks to reduce plastic pollution through sturdy and biodegradable alternatives. Its approach uses natural biomass that dramatically reduces fossil fuel use. It controls the compound’s temperature sensitivity to water through proprietary manufacturing to create predetermined temperature and dissolving times to eliminate waste from landfills.
“Solutum’s vision is to reduce single-use plastic pollution by providing products with minimum impact on the world’s natural environments,” adds Barak. “We have developed a novel, cost-effective polymer material that dissolves in water at ambient temperature and then biodegrades in compliance with ISO standards, leaving no toxic residue or microplastics.”
“Our materials seamlessly merge into managed disposal streams such as conventional paper or plastics recycling and composting,” she continues. “Furthermore, even when part of 22–32 percent of plastic packaging escapes managed collection systems, Solutum products will dissolve and biodegrade in natural water and soil environments. In managed and unmanaged environments, Solutum plastic materials leave no environmental footprint,” Barak adds.
On the COP28 Radar Screen
Growing consumer awareness about the environmental impact of traditional plastics has increased the demand for biodegradable alternatives. But governments and environmental organizations are pushing for stricter regulations driving the search for biodegradable alternatives. This has motivated businesses to invest, tapping into innovators to solve one of their biggest problems — shrink wrap for pallets. The conversation must certainly be front-and-center during COP28.
“The world must look to biodegradable and compostable plastic substitutes,” says Miho Shirotori, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) officer-in-charge for the international trade and commodities division. Ms. Shirotori underscores that “The future is not plastic. The future is plastic substitutes, and trade can help transition.”
Biodegradable Plastic Isn’t a Risky Investment
There is some progress in adopting biodegradable plastics, but challenges must be addressed quickly. These are primarily centered around production costs, scalability and studying the biodegradation processes. While the effort to reinvent plastic goes forward, countries and companies must rally and support alternatives by offering investment, sharing use specifications, and working shoulder-to-shoulder with innovators as solution champions. It’s an investment that has almost guaranteed ROI.
So, is the future in plastics? The answer is no. The movie’s advice — and the explosion of plastic products from the late 1960s — is no longer sound. The future is in a sustainable, healthier planet that rallies to climate/tech and health/tech innovation to reinvent the process. In The Graduate, Ben Braddock’s well-intended neighbor offered one famed word of advice: “Plastics.” Older and wiser Ben might add one life-sustaining qualification based on environmental imperatives and current knowledge: “As long as they’re biodegradable!”