Plastic bottles litter the beach in Milnerton, Cape Town. File photo: SUPPLIED
Plastic bottles litter the beach in Milnerton, Cape Town. File photo: SUPPLIED
Image: Peter Ryan

A British startup’s innovation to tackle plastic pollution by decomposing the material into a wax that’s digested by nature is making inroads in Asia.

Polymateria, which has a lab on Imperial College London’s campus, has struck a deal with a supplier to 7-Eleven in Taiwan, Polymateria CEO Niall Dunne said in an interview. The company has also inked a deal worth as much as $100m to license its technology to Taiwan’s Formosa Plastics, one of the world’s biggest petrochemical manufacturers. 

“We’re targeting the type of plastic that’s most likely to wind up in nature with a solution that doesn’t need any composting technologies to biodegrade or capital expenditure,” Dunne said. “We’re focused on Asia since that’s where a lot of the fugitive plastic is coming from and there aren’t massive waste management systems in place.”

Godrej Consumer Products in India will also start to use Polymateria’s packaging beginning later in 2021, he said. The startup also has licensing agreements with other plastics producers in the Philippines and Malaysia. 

Fugitive plastic

The deals are part of the London startup’s plan to tackle one of the world’s biggest waste problems: so-called fugitive plastic from snack wrappers, cups and shopping bags that finds its way into oceans and landfills. The company says it’s the first to offer a fully biodegradable solution that leaves no microplastics behind and doesn’t require any special equipment to manufacture or biodegrade. Still, the technology isn’t without controversy, with some scientists calling for an approach that’s based on reducing the use of plastics and recycling instead.

Polymateria’s technology uses about a dozen different chemicals, including rubbers, oils and desiccants, that are added to plastic during the manufacturing process. The additives can be adjusted to create thin films that cover food products or more rigid materials to make cups or drink pouches. The products can be customized to essentially self-destruct after a certain time. The additives help break down plastic polymers and turn the plastic into a wax that’s fully digested by natural bacteria and fungi. 

The thinner packing materials can decompose in as little as 226 days in tests, according to Dunne, and since the products use plastics that are processed by recycling plants today, they can also be reused. By comparison, it takes around 1,000 years for a plastic bag to degrade in landfills.

In Taiwan, some 7-Eleven stores are now carrying cheese-baked rice meals in Polymateria’s disposable packaging. Uni-President Enterprises, which operates the outlets, plans to cut its use of disposable plastics to less than 20% of packaging by 2023, according to its website.

Godrej, Indian Retailers

Mumbai-based Godrej, meanwhile, will start making biodegradable poly bags and plastic wrapping that encases soap bars using the technology this year. Other consumer brands in India are expected to come on board by October, Dunne said.

Food companies and retailers globally are putting plastics pollution front and center as images of floating garbage patches and mountainous landfills go viral. Nestle, for example, has created its own institute to develop sustainable packaging materials and is working on biodegradable or compostable polymers that are also recyclable.

Polymateria’s agreement with Formosa Plastics is more about tackling the problem at its source. The Taipei-based group will use its technology to make resin pellets of food-grade polypropylene, a type of polymer used in consumer products, in its plants. 

Formosa eventually plans to manufacture hundreds of thousands of tonnes of biodegradable resin that will be transformed into packaging materials starting from 2022. It’s a key pillar of Formosa’s plan to make all its polypropylene resins for packaging biodegradable by 2025, according to the company.

The petrochemicals giant hardly has a clean track record, however. A $9.4bn complex the conglomerate is building in Louisiana faces opposition from locals that are concerned with emissions and pollution. In 2019, a federal district judge in Texas called the US business, Formosa Plastics USA, a “serial offender” for dumping plastic pellets into the bay surrounding one of its plants. The company settled, agreed to improve its waste-disposal system and spend $50m on sustainability projects in the area. A spokesperson for Formosa Plastics in Taiwan declined to comment.

For Polymateria, which was founded in 2015 and is seeking to raise about $27m at a valuation of about $273m, working with one of the world’s biggest petrochemical producers and its downstream suppliers is a must if it wants to get biodegradable products into consumers’ hands. 

“You’re not going to see every petrochemical company committed to sustainable products and innovation. You need to make a judgment call on who is,” Dunne said. “We were impressed by their commitment by 2025 to have all their food-grade packaging transition to biodegradable materials. That’s a very strong statement that says they’re ready to change.” 

Debate on biodegradable plastics

Still, not everyone in the scientific community is convinced biodegradable plastics is the answer. A group of independent scientific advisers to the European Commissioners released a report in December that concluded “biodegradable plastics aren’t a silver bullet”.

“Scientific evidence clearly shows that biodegradable plastics are not the solution to littering,” Nicole Grobert, chair of the Group of Chief Scientific Advisors to the European Commission, said. “Instead, biodegradable plastics should be limited to very specific uses for which reduction, reuse and recycling are not possible.”

Other scientists are concerned biodegradable plastics could even encourage littering.

Dunne says that while he agrees with the goal of reducing, reusing and recycling, Polymateria’s solution addresses an immediate problem that’s not going away. And retailers, swayed by customer sentiment, are demanding it, according to Tosho Wang, CEO of Taiwan’s South Plastic Industry, which is supplying 7-Eleven with some of the disposable packaging.

“Recycling is our ultimate goal,” Wang said. “But if there are fish that escape the net, these products can still decompose in nature. Educating consumers to form habits to recycle will take time.”

Bloomberg News. More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com

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