When plastic becomes part of Nature’s recycling system

Summary

Plastic is widely acknowledged as an environmental plague, but replacement solutions are hard to find and it seems that we would never be able to live without it. But what if a revolutionary decision was taken at the 2032 Earth Summit?

17Mai.
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The Rio + 40 Earth Summit which has just ended was the scene of a surprising, courageous and visionary decision: to “eradicate all non-biodegradable and polluting plastics within the next 20 years”. A bold statement that immediately drew criticism from representatives of the petrochemical and plastic industries and oil-producing countries, who argued in a joint statement that a world without plastic was “inconceivable and simply impossible to attain”, and that this “utopia (would) soon die by itself”. However, with the exception of OPEC member countries and the United States, every country represented at the Earth Summit co-signed the declaration and committed to achieving quantifiable goals. An ad hoc international organizationis expected to be created within the next few months. A world without plastic seems to be dawning. Flash-back on how the need to eradicate plastic has become an imperative over the past 50 years, and how new solutions to replace it were found.

 

Why plastic must disappear

 

The decision to eradicate “traditional” plastic was fervently supported by the main global powers, led by China, India and Brazil, who chose at the turn of the 2020s to encourage the transition towards a world without petroleum. Even Brazil, then an oil exporter, decided to forego this activity and focus on more sustainable energies. At the time, Chinese president Xi Jinping declared:

If we, the nations still known in the Western world as “emerging countries”, want to maintain the economic leadership position we have established, we must free ourselves from dependency on oil and fossil resources as soon as possible.

Awareness was then growing over the catastrophe that plastic had become for the environment. The discovery of the Great Garbage Patch in the 1990s was the first and most visible sign of how it had invaded every part of nature: this Patch of plastic waste that floated in the North Pacific, between California and Japan, amounted to 3.5 million tons of garbage in 2012. The effects on biodiversity and wildlife were dramatic: countless birds found dead with their stomachs full of plastic, tortoises that mistook plastic bags for jellyfish and suffocated on them, fish killed by the tiny particles of plastic they ingested, etc. According to the NGO Oceana, in 2010, 675 tons of waste were thrown into the sea each hour!

With a lifetime of several hundred years and a useful life of as little as 20 minutes for plastic grocery bags, the material’s ecological balance is indeed disastrous. Further up the chain, results are little better: the production of plastic derives from oil (in the early 2010s, 4% of the world’s oil production was dedicated to plastic), the price of which has skyrocketed and which is likely to almost completely disappear within the next few decades, and also generates greenhouse gases. In the 2030s, in a world where environmental concern has become the centre of economic and political strategies, everywhere on the planet, plastic – once a wonderful and revolutionary “man-made material” with infinite possibilities – now seems to belong to prehistory.

 

The Glass, Steel, Wood and Rubber Age

 

But how could we live without plastic? It is everywhere. From food packaging to windmills, not to mention clothes, computers and phones, cars, planes, pipes, credit cards, etc. Those who oppose the Earth Summit’s decision warn that the disappearance of plastic would have a catastrophic impact on communications, transportation, energy and the economy as a whole. We would have no choice other than to go back to the Glass, Steel, Wood and Rubber Age and regress to 19th century levels of comfort. It would be a shame, they say, to deprive mankind – and Earth – of a material that has facilitated such enormous progress.

In the food industry, for instance, switching from glass to plastic to package liquids resulted in a tremendous reduction in the loads carried by trucks, thereby decreasing the number of trucks.

In the car industry, 100 kilos of plastic replaced 200 to 300 kilos of other materials: thanks to the weight reduction, the fuel consumption of cars in Western Europe dropped by 12 million tons a year at the start of the 21st century. In some respects, plastic did have a positive impact on the emission of greenhouse gases. It also enabled unprecedented developments in means of communication, notably telephones, computers and, of course, the Internet. When it comes to technology, how could we ever imagine living without polymers?

 

Mushrooms and bacteria to the rescue

 

The answer is not that complex and started to emerge in the 2010s: plastic must be replaced with itself. Or, more precisely, with materials that have the exact same properties with none of the drawbacks. Such materials already exist and just need political will – in that respect, the Earth Summit’s decision is the best that could have been hoped for – and economic support to develop fully. And soon, to resolve the plastic issue.

Twenty years ago, we started to hear about new polymers: bioplastics and agroplastics, created not from oil, but from renewable and agricultural resources (corn, sugar cane, potato, wheat, etc.).

These plastics initially drew great enthusiasm because they are, per se, completely biodegradable, 100 % sourced from plants, and could even be used as compost at the end of their life.

No more garbage cans bursting with plastic, no more plastic bags flying in the sky and floating in the sea, no more incineration of materials that would give off toxic smoke. And the agrobusiness giants soon started to integrate agroplastics in their products. Plastic could finally become part of the environmental chain, and no longer be a material, created by demiurgic humans, which is unable to fit into nature’s recycling system.

But there was also a string of disadvantages. The most important was that to be mass-produced, agroplastics needed to “take over” arable lands. This also meant huge water usage, while it was already obvious that too much water was being employed in food production. Agroplastics were not that “green” after all. They did, however, provide a crucial step towards new ways of manufacturing plastics. They established the idea that whenever we produce a material, we must have the end of its life in mind. That each new object must be designed not only according to how it is to be used, but also according to how it is to end – and biodegrade.

Quite simply, it now seems that the solution for a world without plastic – or at least without non-biodegradable and polluting plastics – will come from… mushrooms and bacteria. Today, this is the most promising lead we have to meet the goals recently set by the international community. In the 2010s, a young American entrepreneur, Eben Bayer, discovered that mycelium, the vegetative part of mushrooms, when put in the presence of crop waste (such as wheat, corn or rice pods), seed husks or woody biomass, starts to create polymers. It then acts as a glue, sticking the “waste” elements together to build a material that is as good as any other agroplastic. It has three main advantages: the plastic creates itself with almost no human intervention; it does not require any “new” materials that would have to be grown for the purpose; and it can be produced from many different feedstocks, according to local crops, and thus can be created anywhere in the world. The technique rapidly spread to developing countries during the second half of the 2010s, and by 2020 China had become the world’s leading producer of “mushroom plastic”, thanks to the rice crop waste that was piling up and to active government support.

Will our collective salvation come from mushrooms? It just may. It has now been twenty years since a group of scientists realized that an Amazonian mushroom was able to digest and degrade plastics. This discovery has enabled tons of plastic to be naturally destroyed and turned into compost each year ever since. But now, with the historic decision that was made at the Rio +40 Earth Summit, and the fact that suitable technology is now available, everywhere in the world, we can confidently look towards a future where we do not need to find new ways to destroy plastic, because it will have disappeared. It is not going to be like going back to the Glass, Steel, Wood and Rubber Age, it is not going to be like living in the 19th century all over again. It will be a new era, an era where technological progress finally allows man and nature to cohabit better. An era where plastic is part of nature’s cycle.

Photo © Shutterstock / MrSmithphoto