• Minnie Rous

The Midas Touch: the benefits and burdens of plastic

By Minnie Rous, Yasir Aheer, Varun Rao and Rahul Rao


Summary:

  • One of plastic’s main blessings is also its curse: it is designed to last. Nearly all the plastic ever created still exists in some form today - all 7.8 billion tonnes of it. 

  • Plastics are an indispensable part of modern life, and weaning ourselves off them will require multi-faceted approaches and innovative new materials. 

  • Progress is being made with global companies setting ambitious sustainability objectives, however more needs to be done and quicker.

In Greek mythology, King Midas was a man of great fortune who wanted nothing more than to accumulate wealth and gold. As the story goes, one of the gods granted him his deepest desire: to have anything he touched turn to gold


Midas was thrilled to have received such a blessing, turning objects into gold by mere touch. But soon he realised the gift was also a curse. His food would turn to gold leaving him hungry, and when he hugged his beloved daughter she turned into a golden statue. Fearful and realising his folly, he begged the gods to lift the curse.


Man's relationship with plastics, arguably one of our greatest and most tragic inventions, bears an eerie similarity to the story of King Midas.


Ironically, the first commercial project for plastic aimed at protecting nature and the wildlife. In the 19th century, billiard balls were made of ivory obtained from slaughtering wild elephants. The rising popularity of billiards was increasing the demand for the resource and straining elephant populations. The growing cost of ivory and concerns of shortage due to diminishing elephant numbers inspired one New York-based manufacturing firm to offer $10,000 (over $300,000 today) to anyone who could develop a substitute. In response, John W. Hyatt developed a plastic that could be made to imitate natural substances, such as ivory.


Incredibly, at the time, plastic was hailed as a saviour of nature and the environment. Humans were no longer dependent solely on the resources provided by nature, a welcome - if temporary - relief. The invention also unshackled people from the social and economic constraints imposed by limited and expensive natural resources. Inexpensive forms of early plastic made material wealth accessible to a much larger portion of society. 


Fast forward to today. Plastics have come a long way and are now an indispensable part of life. Modern plastics are derived from materials such as crude oil, cellulose, coal, salt and natural gas. One of the main reasons for their popularity is their versatility and relatively low cost of production. The modern injection moulding technique, in which melted plastic is inserted into a mould of any shape where they rapidly harden, has made it possible to create products of diverse shapes and sizes. This technique has also enabled plastic-based products to be manufactured inexpensively and at scale. 


Another valuable quality of plastics is that they are lightweight, a characteristic especially attractive for products that require energy efficiency. According to one estimate, 22% of the Airbus A380 aircraft is built with lightweight carbon fibre reinforced plastics, saving fuel and lowering operating costs by 15%.

Packaging, in particular for the food industry, is both the biggest consumer and the top waste generator of plastic (Figure 1). One of the main arguments for plastic in the food industry is that it helps prevent food wastage, estimated to be roughly one-third of all food produced. Plastic-based packaging minimises wastage by keeping food fresh for longer and keeping it safe while in transit from farms to warehouses, to store shelves and ultimately to the consumer. According to a UK government report:

  • An unwrapped cucumber loses moisture and is unsaleable within 3 days. 1.5 grams of plastic wrapping keeps it fresh for 14 days. 

  • Selling grapes in plastic trays or bags reduces in-store waste by 20%.

  • In-store wastage of potatoes reduced from 3% when sold loose to less than 1% after specially designed plastic bags were introduced.

One of plastic’s main blessings is also its curse: it is designed to last. Nearly all the plastic ever created still exists in some form today - all 7.8 billion tonnes of it. And here lies the problem. Most natural materials biodegrade leaving limited long-term impacts to the environment. In stark contrast, plastics can last for over half a millennium


It is no news that plastic is piling up in landfills, clogging our oceans and killing wildlife. Pictures and videos of the havoc that plastic pollution has wrought on our natural ecosystem are ubiquitous. Figure 2 illustrates the destiny of all plastic produced between 1950 to 2015 - a bleak picture indeed. According to one estimate from WWF, if you lined the takeaway coffee cups discarded every year in Australia alone, it would stretch around the world … twice! 

Solutions

One popular mantra of the sustainability movement is: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.


Let’s first cover Reduce and Reuse. The thinking here is that one way to reduce waste is by not needing to create a new product in the first place. Making a new product requires raw materials extracted from the earth and needs energy as the product must be manufactured and then transported. Reduction and reuse could save natural resources, relieve pressure on land-fills and protect the environment.


One example of reduction and reuse is the Australian start-up, One Good Cup. The company’s founder and Managing Director Henham Rous* is on a mission to reduce disposable coffee cups across Australia. His team has developed an online platform and an “Enjoy. Return. Repeat” model that lets coffee lovers pick-up or drop-off reusable coffee cups at participating Cafe Champions.

Loop, a US based company, has taken the concept of re-use further by asking why we own the product's packaging (and have to throw it away) when all we really wanted was the stuff inside. Loop has developed a model in which customers essentially borrow the packaging and return it upon use. The packaging then gets professionally cleaned and reused. At the time of publishing, Loop had over 25 partner brands and sold over 100 products on their webstore.

That brings us to Recycling. As we mentioned earlier, one of the main challenges with plastic is that they do not biodegrade, at least not within a reasonable timeframe. One critical approach to tackling the problem could be engineering environmentally friendly materials to replace plastic. Bioplastics, which are made from biological material instead of petroleum, are an innovative solution that have the potential to relieve some of the pressure on the environment. They can be made by extracting sugar from plants like corn and sugarcane engineered from microorganisms.


One of the companies at the forefront of sustainable packaging and bio-based plastic alternatives is the US based material science firm Footprint. The company is focused on eliminating plastics by developing innovative alternatives, such as plant-based products. They have partnerships with leading global brands and manufacture, for them, sustainable and compostable packaging materials. Their technology has been used to develop and replace plastic in several packaging products, such as meat trays, six-pack rings, takeaway coffee cup / lids and more.

Another example is PA Packaging Solutions, a company that claims to be Australia’s first certified home compostable barrier packaging provider. The company’s films are made of biodegradable materials that break down naturally and return nutrients to the soil under specific composting conditions that can be implemented at home.


One of the more effective approaches to recycling could be to give discarded materials a new lease of life. Gumdrop, a London based company, takes discarded chewing gum, a nuisance for cities around the world, and recycles it to create a range of compounds for use in the plastics and rubber industry. Some of their products include guitar picks, pencils, sports cones, frisbee and much more


Parting thoughts

Plastics are an indispensable part of modern life, and weaning ourselves off them will require multi-faceted approaches and innovative new materials. 


Progress is being made with global companies setting ambitious sustainability objectives. McDonald’s is aiming to have 100% of their guest packaging come from renewable or recycled sources by 2025. Coca-Cola’s global CEO, James Quincey, has announced a goal to collect and recycle the equivalent of every bottle or can it sells globally by 2030. Leading alcohol brands have also announced plans towards sustainability with Absolut trialing a paper based bottle prototype in the UK and Sweden, and Johny Walker set to launch a new paper-based whiskey bottle in 2021. All commendable efforts, but, of course, more needs to be done ... and quicker.


At the end, we circle back to the story of King Midas. Realising his folly, King Midas begged for the curse to be lifted. The gods took pity on him and helped him out of his predicament. 


Unfortunately, unlike King Midas, we cannot wish our curse away. 


Time is of the essence.

* Henham Rous, Managing Director of One Good Cup, is the brother of one of the authors (Minnie Rous).


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Disclaimer: This article is based on our personal opinion and does not reflect or represent the views of any organisation that we might be associated with.