This is a special Earth Day edition of theCurrent Climate newsletter, which is typically sent every Saturday and covers the progress and challenges facing businesses and the world in the race to net zero emissions.
To celebrate my birthday last year, I hired one of those self-driving boats you can sail down a city's canal. What was meant to be a one-hour pleasant voyage down a mile-long stretch between London's Paddington Station and Regent's Park was interrupted twice by the boat's electric engine failing, both times for the same reason: A plastic bag had gotten stuck in the helix. Untangling the bag was a small inconvenience, but it brought home just how much plastic pollution exists in our waterways and other natural environments, whether lurking beneath the surface or in plain sight.
It's ironic that plastic bags, reportedly invented to avoid the environmental damage created by alternatives like paper and textiles, have come to symbolize all that is wrong with plastic and its life cycle. A convenient material for its lightweightedness, resistance and adaptability, plastic production has ballooned since the turn of the millennium. According to the OECD, global plastic waste production doubled to 353 million metric tons (778 million pounds) between 2000 and 2019. Of this, nearly two-thirds is made up of plastics with lifetimes of under five years, with 40% coming from packaging, 12% from consumer goods and 11% from clothing and textiles. Some of this waste takes the form of microplastics, whose impact on the environment, human and other animal species has yet to be fully understood, but which initial studies have linked to infertility and other health issues.
Most of human history has been plastic-free, but it's now become hard to imagine a world without it. Luckily, several entrepreneurs are working on it, and this Earth Day issue of Current Climate highlights innovations that aim to make plastic disappear. A few keywords dominating those conversations: scale, pricing and integration into existing value chains.
Finally, hats off to the Financial Times for devising this "Climate Game" on how to reach net zero by 2050. Some of the choices presented in each scenario are debatable, and that's part of the point—it's a thought-provoking exercise. I admit I just missed the game's 1.5-degree goal, mostly because I didn't force everyone to drive electric vehicles. (My preferred option, to encourage cycling and public transport use, wasn't available.) What does your path to net zero looks like?
How To Make Plastic Disappear, Part 1: Seaweed Solutions
Humble seaweed is an increasingly popular candidate to replace petroleum-based plastic. It doesn't need freshwater, fertilizer or even land. Its malleable structure makes it suitable for replacing plastic films used for packaging, which are common pollutants.
The Mumbai startup Zerocircle uses dried seaweed as the basis of its packaging materials, which are designed to dissolve after use. It was through researching waste management and recycling processes that cofounder Neha Jain realized the need for a material that "takes care of itself if the system falters," as she put it. "If you're looking at the footprint of plastics, you're looking at microplastics, you're looking at carbon efficiency and you're looking at its permanence," she says. Her company has been awarded several recognitions for its work, most recently becoming a finalist for the Tom Ford Plastic Innovation Prize.
Across the globe, Hawaiian native and California-based entrepreneur Sea Briganti initially envisioned Loliware as a maker of edible cups made of seaweed, but eventually realized that it wasn't one product line that was going to make a difference—the production process had to change. "Food technology is not well-suited for mass production at a competitive price point. We need to design for scale," she tells Forbes.
Over half a decade of development work later, defying skeptics who didn't believe seaweed could offer a scalable solution, Loliware now produces seaweed pellets that can replace plastic at scale. The brand puts the spotlight on straws, but that's just the beginning. "I can literally walk into a plastic manufacturer tomorrow anywhere on the planet, and they can replace any single-use plastic with our pellet. There's no startup capital required, no capex, I'm not creating a technology that requires custom machinery. All the technology has to be built into the materials science, not into the processing," Briganti says.
From bags to straws, single-use plastics are the primary target of government bans. India's takes effect in July, the European Union imposed one last year, and France has gone further, banning plastic packaging of fresh produce at the start of this year. In California, the first U.S. state to ban plastic bags, a proposed ban on single-use plastics will appear on the November ballot.
Such regulations are helping to advance research on alternatives, says Jain. But there remains the issue of pricing: plastics remain cheap while other materials struggle to compete, especially in countries where widespread poverty means any increase in the price of food has serious repercussions for many people. "There are developing countries that cannot afford to have a pricing that can change the cost of a five-cent biscuit," Jain says. Carbon taxes could help make plastic less competitive, but ultimately it's seaweed production that needs to reach economies of scale, she adds, noting the plastic production process has been optimized for scale and price competitiveness over the course of seven decades.
To reach that scale, more capital is required. While interest is growing, VC funding towards startups dedicated to tackling the climate emergency is largely focused on mobility and transport, but areas that have larger potential for emission reduction—such as energy, food and agriculture and the built environment—received a fraction of those investments, according to a 2021 PwC report. "[Climatetech] needs more funding," Briganti says, "There's a huge transformation happening that [investors] can be a part of. Put your money into this transformation."
Fuel cell maker Plug Power signed a deal to supply Walmart with 20 tons of green hydrogen a day, enough to supply power to 25,000 forklifts, reducing the retail giant's carbon emissions and dependence on fossil fuels.
A new study finds greenhouse gases produced by human activity resulted in heavier rainfall during the record-breaking 2020 hurricane season, when storms inflicted around $37 billion in damage across the U.S.
Recent figures from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) show a record annual increase in atmospheric levels of methane for the second year in a row.
A surge in the price of lithium and other minerals used in electric vehicle batteries is a concern for the speed of the transition away from internal-combustion engine vehicles. But it's not a situation the market hasn't faced before.
How To Make Plastic Disappear, Part 2: Change The Structure
Whatever the success of efforts to replace plastic packaging with other materials, some form of plastic will likely continue to be needed for the decades to come. That's where Polymateria aims to make a difference. Rather than use alternative materials to replace petroleum-based plastic, Polymateria's technology fundamentally alters the composition of the plastic polymer so it becomes compostable in nature, whether or not is recycled.
The real challenge the 7-year-old company had to tackle, CEO Niall Dunne tells Forbes, was that existing technologies were either not credible—as in, they end up breaking the plastic but creating microplastics—or not scalable. "The reason plastic is so persistent in nature is because of the hard crystal structure. Our breakthrough moment was when we first realized how to destroy the crystal structure—that's the key to avoiding creating microplastics—and transform it into something that behaves like a grease or a wax," Dunne says.
The next step was to replicate microbial activity so that the grease- or wax-like residue would disappear into nature. Polymateria's team of polymer scientists, biologists and chemists tested the product in real-life conditions and published their findings in peer-reviewed journals. It takes Polymateria-altered polyethylene—commonly used to produce single-use plastic utensils such as straws, cutlery or cups—226 days to return fully back to nature, while more rigid polypropylene containers—such as those for cleaning products—decompose in 326. Petroleum-based plastic can take between 20 to 500 years to decompose, depending on the product.
Polymateria is also tackling the challenge of non-woven materials—the type of plastic used for face masks and other personal hygiene products such as pads and diapers—in collaboration with the billionaire-owned Thai plastics giant Indorama Ventures. But Dunne says not every plastic producer has been as supportive. "There is a small cult of industry associations who have been pushing composting as a silver bullet for over 20 years and have invested in lobbying over science and innovation and don't really care about solving the problem," he says. But he's confident. "Both governments and consumers, in particular young people, demand better innovation. These twin forces are the key to the technology becoming mainstream."
On The Horizon
The 900-mile-long East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) is due for completion in 2024. Climate activists and researchers warn that it is not only incompatible with climate goals, but will ruin the lives of thousands of people while further endangering rare animal species.
How To Make Plastic Disappear, Part 3: What About Recycling?
It's become somewhat of a mantra among sustainability-minded people: "We cannot recycle our way out of plastic pollution." Indeed, earlier this year, a WWF report made this very statement, noting that only 9% of all the plastic ever made has been recycled and criticizing current chemical recycling processes as energy-intensive, posing risks to human health, and unlikely to make a difference compared to mechanical recycling.
Whatever the merits of the recycling process itself, keep in mind that 26% of all plastics produced are for packaging, and a third of that leaks outside the collection system—meaning that instead of ending up in a landfill or a recycling plant, it simply spills into the natural environment. According to Umutcan Duman, CEO and cofounder of Turkish waste management software Evreka, that's one element that makes plastic waste management so tricky—it requires everyone to play their part. "When you deal with industry, you can consolidate waste and collect it. On the commercial side, this can also be done. But [when it comes to] individual collection, training, awareness and behavioral change are the biggest challenges."
We can't recycle our way out of the plastic pollution crisis not just because of the inefficiencies of the waste management system, but also because efforts to reduce pollution should be start from the point of conception of the product, not just the moment it's discarded. "When I talk to product designers I ask them, 'Are you thinking about the end of the life or life period of the products that you are designing?' And almost none of them are aware of it," Duman says. "Recycling can help, but it's the last resort."
In a circular economy, recycling and waste management have an important role to play. Duman is insistent that there cannot be a 100% recycled product or packaging in the absence of a functioning secondary raw-materials supply chain. "More brands are now getting into waste management businesses, acquiring waste collection and recycling companies," he says, citing German supermarket chain Lidl. "It is not waste management anymore; it is actually a cornerstone of the new supply chain. And if they cannot hold the cornerstone, then they will have to buy the secondary materials from competitors."
The plastic pollution problem, and solutions to it, exemplify the challenges posed by climate change. We've created the issue, we know how to tackle it, we just need to find the will and the capital to act—and in the process, exciting new businesses and business models will come to life.