Ex-BT chief Niall Dunne on a mission to create the ‘Tesla of plastics’

BT's former chief sustainability officer Niall Dunne is determined to use his role as the new chief executive of plastic producers Polymateria to "redesign the rules of an entire industry" and create practical solutions that can eliminate plastic pollution.

Dunne, who spent almost seven years steering BT’s sustainability strategy, was recently announced as the new chief executive of London-based Polymateria. The company’s mission statement is to “tackle the global crisis of plastic pollution through the power of scientific excellence”, and Dunne has been hired to help accelerate progress.

Just two weeks into the job, although discussions started in November, Dunne has already outlined how he plans to transform the company into the Tesla of the plastics industry, leveraging his own expertise, a highly-skilled staff force and the “most powerful circular economy of nature” to create new fully-biodegradable products.

“Plastic has become emblematic of all of our environmental issues, and while advocacy and awareness are high, there’s very little in terms of practical solutions that we can scale up quickly,” Dunne told edie.

“I 100% want to become the Tesla or the Nest of plastics. There’s been a lot of noble efforts so far, but I’m a big believer in the power of an idea whose time has come. What we don’t have is systemic solutions that can intervene at point of manufacture and use nature to effectively deal with plastics. Tesla challenged and redesigned the automobile and built an ecosystem around it, we can do that with this issue, starting with the science.”

Polymateria specialises in producing time-controlled biodegradation technology for synthetic and bio-based plastics. The technology uses chemical reactions that oxidise the polymer chains and breaks the plastics down into small fragments. To ensure that small amounts of plastics don’t seep into ecosystems, each product is designed so that naturally-occurring fungi and microbes digest any leftovers, leaving water and CO2 as the only remains.

The timing of the announcement has created an ideal time for Polymateria to pitch its solution. As much as $80bn-$120bn of plastic packaging material value is lost to the economy, usually ending up in the marine environment. The recent Blue Planet series not only raised consumer awareness to new levels, but also created a platform for policymakers, retailers and brands to announce efforts to combat plastic pollution.

Dunne was previously friends with Polymateria’s chairman Jonathan Sieff and agreed to the chief executive role after noticing the growth of throw-away plastics that were littering the countryside and marine environments.

While UK and European legislation have called for a ban on plastic waste over the next 12 to 25 years, Dunne noted that global infrastructure isn’t at a standard to cope with demands for plastic. As this system struggles to improve itself – the UK, for example, won’t outline changes to producer responsibilities for products until later this year – Dunne believes that his company can intervene across the value chain.

“We need to design a system that can process and handle one billion tonnes of plastic,” Dunne said. “But a lot of places in the world don’t have basic recycling infrastructure in place, so this could take five to 10 years to develop.

“We don’t have that much time, and Polymateria can be a big part of the solution, we can intervene way further up the value chain to change plastic, so that if it ends up in the natural environment, it can be broken down into molecules small enough that enzymes can digest them.”

Polymateria is currently testing its solutions at a research and development facility, the Innovation Hub at Imperial College London, which Dunne described as a “clean tech silicon valley based in London”.

According to Dunne, the science-based approach at Polymateria is so rigorous that nothing is let out of the lab unless it has proof of success. The company is currently targeting replacement plastics for applications such as film wraps, rigid trays and bottle caps.

Power of science

Despite the infancy of the solutions, Dunne claimed that his previous experiences at BT, coupled with willing collaborative partners, can help steer the products into markets. BT was one of the first corporates to set a carbon reduction target in 1992 and the firm’s ambitions have grown since.

BT is now setting itself on the path to help limit global warming to 1.5C through a new science-based target to reduce emissions by 87% by 2030 against a 2016/17 baseline, after reaching a carbon target four years ahead of schedule.

Dunne was a key employee during BT’s work with the Carbon Trust in setting the science-based targets and is a firm believer that a science-based approach will help combat plastics pollution.

“As you set out to become the Tesla of plastics, you need real integrity around the science and basically reinvent the entire industry,” Dunne added. “That ability to learn from the science and make sure you’re doing due diligence and being on firm footing on dealing with the issue is vital.

“I have an appreciation for the real rigour and integrity in the science, I learnt this at BT. When we started a similar journey with BT on climate, we had methodology and what we needed to do, but the jury was out, and we had to challenge the assumptions we had made as an industry.”

BT did indeed challenge the assumptions that sustainability was a financial burden. The company’s consumer operations and products that contribute to carbon savings now represent 22% of the company’s annual revenue and are worth £5.3bn.

Looking ahead, Dunne is already willing to place his belief in new technological innovations that can help verify Polymateria’s technology. Dunne was at Davos during the World Economic Fourm last week and noted the excitement around the potential of blockchain. Acting as a digital ledger, blockchain creates a verifiable audit trail that can be used for any transaction and Dunne claimed that the technology would provide assurances for potential stakeholders and partners that Polymateria could deliver on its claims.

Matt Mace

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