By Guest Blogger Brit Peacock
The issue of waste plastic is a big concern globally, and nowhere more so than here in the UK. It’s estimated that in the UK five million tonnes of plastic are consumed annually, with most of it – 4.5 million tonnes – entering the waste stream. The European Commission recently released a Green Paper drawing attention to the fact that nearly half of all plastic in the European Union is sent to landfill, which has been calculated as the equivalent in energy terms of burying 12 million tonnes of crude oil every year. Even many ‘green’ plastics use oil-based chemicals to make them stronger and more durable. This is clearly a huge waste of a non-sustainable fossil fuel.
Of course, a great deal of waste plastic does not even make it to landfill but ends up polluting the natural environment. A recent documentary narrated by the actor Jeremy Irons, Trashed, highlighted the landscapes that have been massively polluted by waste, and particularly plastic waste. The ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’, a huge concentration of ocean waste, was one disturbing example. Such seaborne plastic particles attract chlorinated dioxins, which are then eaten by marine life, and can then enter the human food chain with potentially serious health consequences.
Recent news from the UK will be of great interest to those concerned about plastic production, particularly in terms of the amount of oil being consumed in their manufacture. A Southampton-based company, Biome Bioplastics, is currently trying to produce a 100% naturally-sourced and biodegradable plastic, and their production method is intriguing.
The company is hoping to replace the remaining oil-based chemicals used in its bioplastics with a chemical derived from lignin. Lignin is a complex hydrocarbon that comes from wood, and which is widely available because it’s a waste product from the pulp and paper industry. When lignin is broken down – rather bizarrely by enzymes found in the bacteria in termites’ stomachs – a chemical is produced that can be used as a viable replacement for oil-based chemicals.
It is hoped that the process of extracting the required chemical can be achieved on an industrial scale, in a cost-effective manner. Producing bioplastics is currently two to four times more expensive than producing oil-based plastics, but the lignin-derived chemical could potentially replace the oil-based aromatic chemicals, the most expensive component of oil-based plastics. The plastic would therefore not only be more environmentally friendly, but production costs would be significantly lower – an important factor during a time of economic recession.
Biome BioPlastics has just been awarded £150,000 by the government-backed Technology Strategy Board to continue its research into producing the plastic on a commercial scale – so it might not be long until we have a cheaper and eco-friendly plastic alternative.
About the author
Brit Peacock is a writer with a keen interest in green issues, who’s currently blogging about sustainability for UK biodegradable and recycled packaging manufacturer Rajapack.