Edible packaging and ocean-plastic shoes: Six of the best innovations to solve the plastics problem

Following this week's inspiring webinar on how businesses are helping to solve the plastics problem, edie has rounded up some of the ground-breaking innovations being explored by companies across the globe as we look to tackle the perils of plastic pollution, once and for all.

The scale of the challenge is now clear: more than eight million tonnes of plastic are seeping into our oceans every year. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 95% of the value of plastic packaging material, worth $80-120bn annually, is lost from the economy and, based on current trajectories, there could be more plastic than fish in the ocean (by weight) by 2050.

It therefore cams as welcome news when more than 200 nations gathered at a UN Environment meeting in Nairobi, Kenya this week to sign a resolution aimed at combatting plastic waste. While that resolution is not legally-binding (the Independent reports that the US, China and India refused calls to place national reduction targets in the resolution), it does send out a united message that the plastic soup plaguing our oceans has reached an extreme and must now be countered.

Of course, any solutions to this epidemic need to be balanced. For plastic serves an important purpose; it protects our products, it gives food a longer shelf life and it is a key component in millions of products across the globe.

But the solutions to unsustainable plastic packaging ARE out there – this is not an unsolvable issue. The onus is now on businesses to continue to innovate and to work collaboratively to solve the plastics problem.

And, as Adam Hall, head of sustainability at Surfdome, concluded in edie’s plastics webinar this week, “every single piece of plastic, in every part of the supply chain, matters.” (Watch the full webinar on-demand here). 

With that ethos in mind, edie has rounded-up some of most innovative solutions to the plastics problem below. Have any of your own? Submit them in the comments section below.

1) Saltwater Brewery’s edible six-pack rings

Whenever the issue of plastic waste is brought up by the mainstream media, it is usually accompanied by a picture of sealife interacting with an errant piece of plastic. One of the more distressing images is fish, turtles or birds stuck in discarded six pack rings – even the latest Blue Planet II series shows that animals are now digesting plastic, with fatal consequences.

Fortunately, some companies are attempting to ensure that, if the plastic is swallowed, it is in fact edible. Beermaker Saltwater Brewery, in Delray Beach just north of Miami, now sells edible six-pack rings made from waste barley and wheat remnants that are leftover during the brewing process.

By partnering with NY-based ad agency We Believers, the brewery has developed a mechanism that “instead of killing animals, feeds them”. Simple, but highly effective.

Edible packaging is also an area being explored by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). Last year, researchers unveiled a prototype of an edible plastic film which is made from the milk protein casein. Not only can this protect the food in the packaging, but researchers could add flavours and micronutrients to it further down the line.

2) Adidas’s ocean plastic shoes

Last year, Adidas announced plans to push around 7,000 pairs of trainers made from 95% ocean plastic into the market, whilst also setting a new goal to produce one million ocean plastic pairs of trainers by 2017.

The sportswear giant has been collaborating with environmental initiative Parley for the Oceans to collect and create a plastics supply chains, which are located in the Maldives and along 1,000 coral islands off the western coast of India. Parley claims that the ‘one million’ target will use at least 11 million plastic bottles retrieved from coastal areas. The trainers consist of 95% ocean plastic and 5% recycled polyester.

The trainers are also being created alongside football kits made from plastic. In November 2016, German giants Bayern Munich played TSG 1899 Hoffenheim wearing an Adidas kit made from Parley’s ocean plastic. Spanish club Real Madrid soon joined the cause, wearing a similar kit during a match against Real Sporting de Gijón.

Fellow sports company Nike has recently taken a similar approach, with certain national football kits consisting of up to 18 recycled plastic bottles.

3) Spark’s plastic-bottle beach huts

While a lot of post-consumer plastic can be recycled and shredded into clothing, some are looking to use the durability of plastic to assist the built environment. Architecture firm Spark has unveiled a concept that uses the millions of plastic bottles in the oceans to create a series of solar-powered beach huts.

While acting as a physical and visual reminder of the ocean plastics problem, the structures will be placed along shorelines and beaches for campers. Plastics will be collected, sorted by colour and then shredded. The resulting granules will then be poured into shaped moulds and reheated to create the external cladding for a timber, pineapple-shaped hut. The hut will also be fitted with solar photovoltaics to power the lighting.

While this particular project is still at a design phase, other examples of plastic being used in building projects are emerging, including the work of US start-up ByFusion with its RePlast system, which can custom-build blocks using plastic waste that doesn’t need to be treated beforehand. ByFusion claims the blocks are almost 100% recyclable and have a 95% lower emissions rate than traditional, carbon-heavy concrete blocks.

4) The chemical industry’s carbon productivity innovation

Industrial carbon emissions are, of course, another major contributer to pollution. But this is not entirely seperate from the issue of plastic waste. In the move to reduce a reliance on plastic, while reducing emissions, some companies are turning to carbon productivity to create closed-loop material solutions.

Earlier this year, for instance, an Indian chemicals company introduced a world-first to the carbon capture market, by utilising subsidy-free technology to turn CO2 from its own boilers to make base chemicals. Meanwhile, chemical company Covestro has set a 2025 goal to “get the most out of carbon”. Under this pillar, carbon productivity is being used to convert CO2 from a waste gas and use it in raw materials.

Indeed, carbon productivity is beginning to gain traction as a viable manufacturing method: last September, the XPRIZE Foundation innovation platform announced a four-and-a-half year competition aimed at turning CO2 into an instrumental material asset. The Foundation is awarding $20m to the winning research team and entries are already raising eyebrows. Biofuels and even toothpaste, Lego blocks and cupcakes have all been produced using carbon productivity and conversion.

5) Coca-Cola and IKEA’s bio-based packaging

Considering Coca-Cola increased its production of throwaway plastic bottles last year by well over a billion, according to Greenpeace, it may seem odd that the drinks company appears on a list of innovative solutions. But, the soft drinks giant is clearly trying improve the recycling rates of its bottles, which are 100% recyclable, while doubling the amount of recycled plastic in each Coca-Cola polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottle to 50% in the next three years.

In 2009, Coca-Cola became the first beverage company to introduce PlantBottle, a plant-based bottle package, with more than 40 billion rolled-out into circulation across 40 countries – a feat which the company claims has eliminated 365,000 tonnes of carbon.

Since then, the company has launched a second version of that bottle, which is made from 100% plant-based bioethonal plastic.

Elsewhere, furniture retailer IKEA is itself eyeing up a new range of alternate polystyrene packaging – which takes longer than conventional plastic to decompose. The company is trialling mushroom-based packaging from New York-based Ecovative, which can decompose naturally in a matter of weeks. One step further, researchers at Pennsylvania State University’s College of Agricultural Services recently filed for a patent of a new plastics coating made from the exoskeletons of crabs.

6) P&G’s ocean plastic Fairy Liquid bottles

As with the Adidas trainers, some solutions can be found through finding a second-life for the plastics that are already in the oceans. Procter & Gamble’s (P&G) Fairy washing-up liquid is now being packaged in bottles made completely from PCR plastic and repurposed ocean plastic.

Set to go on sale in 2018, the bottles will consist of 10% ocean plastic, with the rest deriving from post-consumer plastics. It was one of several plastic packaging innovations discussed by P&G’s Principal Scientist Gian De Belder in this week’s edie webinar.

That announcement was quickly followed by that of Ecover, which launched a limited-edition washing-up liquid bottle made from 50% ocean plastic. The cleaning products firm has outlined its own vision to use 100% recycled plastic in all of its bottles by 2020.

MEanwhile, UK brand Delphis Eco recently launched the world’s first packaging made from 100% post-consumer recycled waste. The company works with waste collectors to produce recycled granules made from high-density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic. The material will be used for a new cleaning product range and achieved a 100% food grade quality polymerase chain reaction (PRS) level.

How to solve the plastics problem: Watch edie’s on-demand webinar

Interface, P&G, Surfdome and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation completed an all-star line-up of circular economy experts for edie’s live, interactive webinar focused on plastic packaging sustainability this week. The webinar, which concluded with a live Q&A, can be viewed on-demand here.

Matt Mace

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