“Our planet is choking on plastic.” That’s the conclusion of the UN Environment Program following a comprehensive examination of the current state of global pollution.
Our bodies are choking on plastic, too. Microplastics are coursing through our bloodstream at unprecedented levels. And a growing community of scientists believe that’s cause for concern.
But there may be a way out of this mess. Thanks to recent advances in synthetic biology, plant-based, biodegradable plastics are no longer the stuff of science fiction. They’re a viable alternative to petroleum-based plastic. Consumers and companies must adopt them. The health of our planet — and ourselves — depends on it.
The numbers behind plastic waste are astonishing. In the first decade of this century, we generated more plastic waste than we had in the previous 40 years combined. Today, the world produces an estimated 400 million tons of plastic waste per year. One-third to one-half of that waste is single-use — a piece of plastic that’s used once and then thrown away. Our oceans may contain as much as 200 million tons of plastic, according to experts.
For years we’ve been encouraged to counteract plastics pollution by recycling. But that’s wishful thinking.
Most plastic is never recycled. A recent Greenpeace study examining waste in the US found that only 5% of plastic ever gets turned into something new. The rest ends up in landfills, incinerators, or waterways. This includes the soda bottles, milk jugs and other items we throw into the blue bins at airports, restaurants and our own homes.
Of the 7 billion tons of plastic waste produced world-wide to date, less than 10% has ever been recycled. There’s simply no global market for used plastics. China — once the buyer for most of the world’s waste plastics — stopped purchasing from other countries in 2018.
The qualities that make plastic so attractive — durability and longevity — also make it so harmful for our environment and our bodies. Most plastic waste never disappears entirely. Instead, the material breaks down into smaller and smaller particles — called microplastics — that travel undetected through water, air, and our bodies.
Microplastics are at the heart of countless products. Crop fertilizer, cosmetics, clothing, cigarette filters, and other items all contain microscopic plastic particles that contribute to the product’s functionality.
It’s these hard-to-detect particles that pose the greatest threat to our health. They accumulate in our organs, tissues, and blood. Scientists have found microplastics in our lungs, livers, kidneys, and spleens. Recent studies have even discovered microplastics in placentas and breast milk.
What makes this so troubling — and so difficult to counteract — is that every type of plastic contains a different recipe of chemical additives.
One particularly dangerous suite of additives are “polyfluroalkyl substances,” or PFAS, commonly known as “forever chemicals.” Scientists have linked PFAS to a wide range of serious health concerns, including cancer, learning difficulties in children, infertility, pregnancy complications and immune system problems. Some experts posit that manufacturers of PFAS may end up with legal liability similar to what asbestos-makers have faced.
Plant-based, biodegradable plastics can solve the pollution and public-health challenges that petroleum-based plastics have long presented. Advances in synthetic biology have led to biodegradable plastics that can compete with petroleum-based products on both cost and functionality.
These biodegradable compounds are showing promise as the raw materials for everything from the liners in sewer systems to the soles of shoes. In the not too distant future, plant-based plastics could replace the petroleum-based products used to make clothes waterproof — or even the conventional plastics that are the foundation of office furniture and car interiors.
The venture capital firm I founded, First Bight, focuses on manufacturing solutions that can bring materials like these bio-based plastics to market. One of our portfolio companies, Algenesis, has developed a fully biodegradable polyurethane currently available in high-performance soft foam applications. The technology is being developed for use in breathable and waterproof-coated fabrics, too. Unlike petroleum-based plastic, it does not contain the harmful PFAS chemical additives that threaten our health and environment — and degrades in compost within a matter of months.
To save our planet and ourselves, we must move away from petroleum-based plastics and toward biodegradable alternatives. The technology exists to produce such materials. It’s now on policy-makers to support them, manufacturers to incorporate them in their products, and consumers to demand them.
Veronica Wu is Founder of First Bight Ventures (firstbight.com).