Plastics: The Miracle, the Waste and How We are Turning the Tide
“The plastic problem is different (to other problems), because it can be absolutely be fix with the science that exists today” Dr. Jennifer Leroy, CTO at Novoloop
They’re everywhere. Only the computer from which these lines are written is about 23% plastic. The window is no exception, its aluminum frames coated in plastic. The car that crosses the street, the advertising banner, the runners’ sneakers and the dog leash.
Since 1869 that John Wesley Hyatt invented the first synthetic polymer, our history and economic development have been related to the research and development of new plastics. Its use has allowed, for example, an efficiency in the production and distribution of food with fresher ingredients, more durable products and lighter cars that consume less fuel. And this benefit is repeated in every industry. Our dependence is such that today around 350mm of tones of various polymers are produced annually.
The plastics market in 2020 was valued at USD$579.7bn. The Coronavirus has been one of the drivers in the demand for synthetic polymers this year, especially for use in hygiene and health product packaging; prepared food and groceries. In the following years the growth of its use in automotive construction and manufacturing will also represent a driver for its manufacture. Projecting a market value of USD$ 750.1bn in 2028.
However, this same dependence has brought us consequences for thousands of years to come. It is estimated that the world went from producing about one ton of plastic waste per day, to producing 1.6 tons during the Covid-19 outbreak. The 8.8 tons floating in the Pacific are the most obvious example of the challenges that their production and purchase entail. This mass contains objects dating back to 1977 that still retain their original color and structure.
Plastics are virtually indestructible. So, to understand the solutions and their scopes, we need to know what we are facing.
The classification is according to its size, composition and density.
By their size they can be micro plastics, of a size between 0.5–5cm, such as those within 1 in 3 fish. Mesoplastics, 0.5–5 cm. Macroplastics of 5–50 cm and Megaplastics, greater than 50 cm.
By their chemical composition and density, we can identify them by the following classification:
Given this classification we can understand why current solutions, such as recycling, are good but insufficient. The 50% of the waste is single-use and only 9% manages to be recycled.
But not everything is lost, the more obvious the consequences have been, innovation and technology have offered more objective solutions through entrepreneurs who are challenging polymers and their current processes. From reducing its use, rethinking the design, the reuse of what has already been produced or taking recycling processes to another level.
There are ones that reduce the use of single-use plastic bags or packaging in groceries and make more efficient to buy bulk products such as SmartBins or Algramo in Chile. Others create zero-waste options in ecommerce like Pieter-Pot, or The Modern Milk Man in the UK.
Reducing by rethinking and replacing
To reduce the use of plastics, we can think of ways to replace them by using bio-plastics that fully complement, improve or replace the compostability of today’s synthetics.
Companies like Tipa in Israel, specialized in flexible packaging. Novoloop with the creation of XIRC™ a high durability polymer made of polyethylene and using 50% recycled plastic through its patented process, ATOD™. Fullcycle and the transformation of food waste into new commercial plastics. MiTerro, making use of dairy waste for the creation of textiles. And injected bio-plastics companies, made from various wastes such as Ecoshell with corn and Biosolutions with agave.
We can split it in two. In one side, those companies that improve efficiency in the collection process and others that improve the selection and processing of waste.
In the first group there are software initiatives such as the data intelligence platform GeoFluxus, or in hardware the intelligent dumpsters of Bin-e. In the improvement of sorting, there are those that are a whole platform for waste management such as Evreka, RTS and EnMassEnergy, and others that focus on providing specialized technology such as Greyparrot that make the classification of waste more accurate and therefore its processing in conventional recycling processes.
There are other initiatives, such as Plastic Bank that not only seek to remove the thousands of tons of plastic in circulation, but create economic development in the economics of geographies such as the Philippines, Indonesia or Haiti.
Considering that most of the plastic we discard is single-use, initiatives such as Last Object have created everyday objects such as facial pads or a tissues and transformed them into durable products with around one hundred uses before being discarded. Or The Ocean Bottle that takes waste from the sea to create new smart bottles.
In fashion, efforts like the famous Rent the Runway or Nuuly, the ecommerce of Urban Outfitters, have shown that you don’t need to buy to have a varied day-to-day wardrobe or a new outfit for each special event.
Another industry with great growth and impact on the reuse of plastics is that of reverse logistics as the case of BlueBirch specialized in recovering and giving a second life to electronics. Or Apkudo, working hand in hand with Amazon, LG, Motorola or Verizon.
In this way, every day new companies emerge, challenging legacy players and consumers. They invite us to take seriously the responsibility for the decisions we make when producing or purchasing. But at the same time, they provide better-performing alternatives in contrast to traditional plastics and their creation and handling processes.
Investments in this sector generally represent high risks, because their research and development cycle is longer than in other industries. Especially in startups involving the development of new materials or the transformation of existing ones. At the same time, their teams are highly technical and specialized, but also passionate about solving this challenge. So once they have started with a solution, they prove to be unstoppable in creating new processes and products, even if the first attempt fails. Those investors who bet on startups in this sector are not only creating value for their LPs and their portfolio, they are also creating value for humanity.
Going back to 23% of the computer I write on. About 57% Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene,36% polyphenylene oxide, 5% high impact polystyrene and a 25% polycarbonate/acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene mixture. Many complex names, many complex plastics that don’t yet have a 100% solution in reduction, recycling or reuse, but that will certainly one day give much to write about.
Hector Shibata Salazar, adjunct Professor at EGADE Business School and Director of Investments and Portfolio at AC Ventures Fund
Ana Maury Aguilar, VC Investor at AC Ventures
ACV is an international Corporate Venture Capital (CVC) fund investing globally in Startups & VC funds.
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