Plastic soup – The solution!
When China announced at the end of 2017 that it was imposing an import ban on plastic waste effective January 1, 2018, the news was greeted with dismay by many recycling companies and environmental organizations. What were the Dutch to do with their plastic waste? And what about the environment? Did this mean we were going to contribute even more to marine pollution? Unthinkable. It turns out that a variety of solutions are available.
BY: LAURA BOETERS
Efforts to collect the plastic garbage that has already accumulated in the oceans are already under way around the world. In 2012, for example, Boyan Slat, a student at Delft Technical University, designed and launched, together with his team, a solution for cleaning up the oceans. Other teams with similar plans but different methods have since entered the picture. Doomsayers have criticized these efforts, calling them a waste of time and energy. So what is then the right way to go about clearing away the vast accumulation of plastic waste that is polluting our planet?
The plastic soup – the huge expanse of floating debris polluting the oceans – mainly originates from litter on land, a primary source of which is single-use plastic products. Halting the use of plastics for these applications is a complex. We turned to Harmen Spek, Innovation and Solution Manager at the Plastic Soup Foundation, to find out more.
Spek: ‘In 2012, Slat designed a floating installation to rid the oceans of plastic waste. The design has since been further developed and is now production ready. Slat’s invention, called ‘The Ocean Cleanup’, has boosted public awareness of the plastic soup issue worldwide. This attention has been very helpful. The work The Ocean Cleanup is doing is extraordinary and Slat should absolutely continue with his project. There is no doubt that he will collect at least part of the plastic that is polluting our oceans. However, to collect and dispose of plastics at the end of the chain, when plastic debris has already entered the oceans and is in the process of breaking down, is not how we think the plastic soup problem should be solved in the long run. We are convinced that significantly reducing the use of single-use plastic products is the only solution that will address the true root of the problem.’
While using less plastic may seem an obvious idea, at the same time, as a society we have grown to become highly dependent on its use. Is it realistic to suppose we could do without? We turned to Nico Osse to find out more. Osse is an entrepreneur with years of experience who has developed a new kind of plastic, called HemCell. HemCell is not only biodegradable, but also fully domestic compostable. Osse: ‘I certainly agree that we could try to curb our use of plastic. But a completely plastics-free society is currently not an option. Plastic offers countless advantages. Plastic is cheap and versatile: it can be flexible or rigid, waterproof and windproof, and is extremely durable. No other material offers this combination of properties. Instead of completely writing plastic off as a material, it is much smarter make plastic that itself is compostable. This is what we’ve done with the development of HemCell. We’ve created a plastic material that, depending on the application, will decompose into water, carbon dioxide and compost under the influence of temperature and humidity within a period of three to six months. What this means is that plastic will no longer need to be recycled or to be incinerated, but simply, like the leaves of the trees, will degrade into nutrients for new plants and trees. A true cradle to cradle solution.
‘It is important that we no longer talk about biodegradable but about compostable plastic.’ We should not focus on degradable plastics, but on domestic compostable plastics,
HemCell manager Fred Hakkenbroek explains how this is possible. ‘In India, a certain species of palm tree is cultivated for its nuts. Until recently, the leaves of these trees were considered agricultural waste. While some leaves were used to make local products, most were left out on the fields or were burnt. But these leaves turned out to be very useful. We developed technology to process these leaves into a one hundred per cent bioplastic material. With the collection and transportation network for the palm nuts already in place, there was no need to set up a new system to collect the leaves. Nor does the use of these leaves involve any destruction of the rainforest. We simply turn an agricultural waste product into a useful feedstock for bioplastic. Moreover, HemCell plastic is in many aspects a better plastic than traditional petroleum-based plastic. Because HemCell also is compostable, it offers applications petroleum-based plastic can’t offer. Consider, for example, the greenhouse industry. Plants are replanted regularly using plastic pots that end up after use as plastic waste. Pots made of HemCell bioplastic simply degrade into compost for the plant.’ Hakkenbroek pointed to a potted palm tree in his office: “This plant is not rooted in soil, it has been planted in pure HemCell pellets. I water it every now and then, that’s all. It’s doing fine.’
The problem of plastic waste is most urgent in the marine environment. The longer plastics float in the oceans, the smaller the pieces become. Corrosion, resulting from the impact of waves and sunlight causes plastic to fragment into countless microplastic particles. Since its founding in 2011, the Plastic Soup Foundation has stimulated the development of innovative solutions to combat the root cause of the problem. Spek: “We would rather prevent plastics from ending up in the marine environment in the first place. Collecting plastics from the seas can easily run parallel with reducing single-use plastic applications. But we need to take action at a much earlier phase in the life cycle of plastic.”
Osse is familiar with this issue. “Unfortunately, we don’t have a globally recognized definition for biological degradable plastics. Any material that can be composted is biodegradable, but not everything that is biodegradable is compostable. Ultimately, with enough patience, even nuclear waste and stone are degradable. Currently, plastics that decompose into particles measuring two by two millimeters are considered biodegradable. According to that definition microplastics (the main cause for concern in the plastic soup) are degraded plastic. For clarity’s sake, we should therefore not be focused on degradable plastics, but on domestic compostable plastics, and should agree on clear definitions about what we consider compostable.
One project that focusses on designing a solution to collects non-compostable plastic is The Great Bubble Barrier. Each year, the Plastic Soup Terrine is awarded to an organization that has put special effort into fighting the plastic soup. In 2017, the prize was won by The Great Bubble Barrier. This project addresses the problem closer to the source, in our canals, channels and rivers. Anne Eveleens, Francis Zoet and Saskia Studer developed a bubble screen to guide the waste to the riverbanks. The bubble screen was made by pumping air into a pipe with holes at the bottom of the river. The bubbles cause an upward flow that brings the waste to the surface of the water. Turbulence prevents the debris from further flowing into the oceans; instead, it accumulates along the banks. The Bubble Barrier functions as a barrier for plastics, but does not hinder shipping, allows fish to pass freely and even aerates the water, thus contributing to the health of the ecosystem. ‘The Great Bubble Barrier’ pilot was carried out on the IJssel river, near Kampen, The Netherlands. The pilot took two weeks, and the data are currently being analyzed. From what I have heard, however, the initial results indicate that the catch also included a large number of small particles, which is amazing,’ said Spek.
Initiatives such as ‘The Ocean Cleanup’ and ‘The Great Bubble Barrier’ show that the plastic soup can also offer excellent business opportunities. Another innovative company, also Dutch, is Plastic Whale, a shipping company. Plastic Whale is the first company to fish professionally for plastic, with as goal, plastic-free waters. Like other entrepreneurs, they fish for waste plastic that is polluting the water. Yet while others subsequently deliver this plastic to recycling companies, Plastic Whale uses it to build custom-designed sloops. The raw materials needed to build these boats would otherwise cost several thousands of euros. Plastic Whale fishes it up for free. It goes without saying that the boat used to fish the plastics is also made of waste plastic that has been recycled in this way.
The circular economy is an important theme that extends to include the plastic waste stream. On January 15, 2018, the Dutch government presented its transition agenda, setting out pathways for the implementation of the national natural resources agreement. This agenda is part of the policy designed ultimately to achieve the transition to a sustainable circular economy in the Netherlands in 2050. According to this agenda, the aim is to keep all raw materials – including plastics – in the loop as long as possible by means of reuse and recycling. While this is good news, says Spek, it should also be put in perspective: “In the Netherlands, we have developed an efficient and effective system to rid ourselves of the waste we produce. We recycle a fair amount and we’ve been successful in exporting our waste, but we’ve also built a huge number of incinerators. While many people oppose the incineration of waste materials, I think that without the incineration plants, we would have had a waste problem on a wholly different – and far greater – scale.”
Apart from the waste surplus, there are other problems hindering the transition to a circular economy. ‘Some products are so complicated – for example, multi-layered films – that they can’t be separated economically. Recycling these products is a complex – and hence costly – operation. Optimum recycling requires taking the end of life into consideration in the design of the product, and including this in the material and product design.’
In response, Osse commented that obviously, ’it is important to remove plastics from our oceans’. Yet something must then be done with the collected waste. Building a boat is only possible after careful selection of the collected waste plastics. Simply lumping all the different plastics together will result in a low quality plastic glob. Indeed, multi-layer plastics are a serious issue. Multi-layer plastics are layers of different plastics bonded together. These are very difficult to recycle, as the result is a very low-quality plastic, with little to no industrial use, and which is normally incinerated. However, it is important to find a way to re-use these plastics, as well. We are developing technology to improve the quality of recycled multi-layer plastics. Tests have shown that the output could be used for various applications, such as crates, shopping carts and other products that are used for a longer period of time by a single user.”
According to Spek, a one hundred per cent circular economy will not mean the end of the plastic soup: “Even if you recycle all the plastic, in practice, leakage always occurs. No matter whether products are made out of new or recycled plastics, in the end, some plastic will always end up in the environment. In fact, the more it is transported and handled, the greater the chance of leakage to the environment. Recycling is therefore not the solution. If we really want to solve the problem of the plastic soup issue, we need to kick the plastics habit and find a ‘Plastic Soup Proof’ alternative for plastic.”
‘Our society will not stop using plastic. It is a far too important a material for that. We just need better plastic.’
Osse agreed. “Yes, we need to fight the plastic soup, collect the plastics and clean the oceans. All these initiatives are very important. But, as Spek has already explained, the leakage of plastics to the environment continues. That’s why it is so important to use compostable plastics. In that case, leakage would no longer be a problem. Our society is not going to stop using plastics. Plastic is way too important. But we can and we need to put plastics and bioplastics to better use.”
Shutting down the flow
Not only are there very motivated groups collecting waste plastics, there are also initiatives to reduce the volume of plastics used. To further develop in the direction of a plastic-free society we are dependent on the front runners. The Dutch company PaperFoam, headquartered in Barneveld, is one such pioneer. The company develops biodegradable packaging materials, which can be disposed of on the compost heap or recycled together with the paper waste.
Another initiative is the Swiss-Dutch venture Fioresso, which together with HemCell, and its subsidiary, HemCell Compostable Coffee Capsules BV, is working on the development of compostable coffee capsules. As Mr. Robert De Jong, spokesman of Compostable Coffee Capsules said: “Globally, billions of coffee capsules are produced, made of aluminum or of multi-layered plastics. Both are extremely polluting. Using Nico Osse’s HemCell material we have succeeded in producing a cold compostable rigid plastic in combination with existing techniques for compostable films. The result is a new type of coffee capsule that can be disposed of as kitchen waste or on the compost heap.
Another international initiative that is working on the development of biodegradable packaging is the Indonesian start-up Evoware. Evoware has created a seaweed-based material that can be used for products like ice cream cones, sugar bags, toothpicks, and packages for sandwiches. Some of these, like the cones, are edible; others can be disposed of on the compost heap.
Consumer efforts count
Although the Netherlands is in the vanguard when it comes to innovation and technology to combat plastic waste pollution, in other areas, the Dutch can take a leaf from other countries’ books as well. The United Kingdom, for example, decided to ban micro plastics from personal care products effective 2018. As from July 2018, producers may no longer add microplastics to their products, and the sale of all personal care products containing microplastics is forbidden.
Deposit schemes are another area where other countries of the EU are taking the lead. For example, Norway and Sweden have successfully introduced deposits on plastic soda bottles and cans. The environmental levy that the governments of these countries has imposed on top of the deposit has prompted supermarkets and soft drink producers to cooperate. The more bottles and cans returned, the lower the environmental tax that has to be paid.
And what about the washing machine? This is another area where consumers can join the effort. Research shows that microplastics are also released into the environment when washing synthetic clothing. For example, a pair of nylon socks loses 136 thousand microfibers per wash; a fleece vest, 1 million microfibers. Two enterprising Germans, Alexander Nolte and Olivier Spies, have come up with a solution: they have designed a special laundry bag called the Guppy Friend, which catches some 99 percent of the microfibers from the synthetic clothing washed in the bag. The laundry bag itself is made of a durable nylon type that releases no microfibers.