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We Have a Plastic Problem; Can Biotech Fix It?

Cornelia Poku
Cornelia Poku
February 27, 2020

Since 1979, we’ve been digging our planet’s grave and filling it with plastic.

Half of the 300 million tons of plastic produced worldwide each year are single-use plastic. Meaning it gets completely thrown away. Plastic made of petroleum doesn’t break down so, it sits in landfills, on our lawns, in trees. Plastic has even made its way into natural habitats on land and under the sea.

Arguably, the plastic we can see is just the tip of the iceberg.

Microplastics are gaining notoriety because they’ve become too many to ignore. Portland State University researchers found “an average of 11 micro-plastic pieces per oyster and nine per razor clam in the samples taken from the Oregon coast…” These microplastics come from fibers, tires, beauty products, and more.

The hardest part about solving our plastic problem is our reliance on it and some of that was by design—we no longer have a society designed around milk deliveries. Solutions have been tossed around, but most of them have the burden of other big issues.

Plastic bag taxes are active in three states and numerous cities and municipalities, but it’s making a fraction of a difference considering how many states are resisting a similar implementation. Meanwhile, entire countries like Rwanda have banned plastic altogether in favor of reusable bags.

Reusable bags cut down on single-use plastic bags, but at the cost of creating more greenhouse gasses. It takes several thousand uses of reusable bags to counteract the impact of single-use plastic bags.

Recycling plastic bags is a confusing rabbit hole; the bags can’t be mixed in with other recyclables, so they must be taken to a special receptacle. But those containers are few and far between, typically at grocery retailers. Even when plastic bags are recycled properly by consumers sometimes the recycling plant rejects them for a number of reasons, including the color. According to Waste Management, the largest disposal managers in the country, only 1% of all plastic bags are ever recycled.    

So, what are we to do?

Thanks to biotechnology, the development of bioplastics is offering a solution. Bioplastics are produced from renewable biomass sources, such as plants, vegetable fats and oils, corn starch, and recycled waste. In principle, they could replace many applications for petroleum-derived plastics.

Virent, for example, is a biotech company that makes “drop-in” plastics that are biodegradable or compostable. Their plastic can be made from carbon that was already released into the environment or from other forms of waste such as crop waste from corn or cane or sugar beets. Their goal is to make plastic that is virtually identical to its petroleum-based peers but with the added benefits of falling into a circular economy.

The technology is promising, but faces two challenges: First, it currently costs more than petroleum-based plastic. That could be tackled with a policy that encourages early price support. The second and probably more difficult hurdle is getting consumers to understand the benefits of a circular economy product and what it means to have a biobased product in the economy and how it’s different from recyclable products. In other countries, bioplastics are becoming a more promising alternative thanks to regulations that limit the use of conventional plastics and incentivize more sustainably sourced materials.

It’s a bit of an uphill battle, but it’s not impossible and because of biotech, it’s the best solution we have.