Researchers from Athlone Institute of Technology’s Materials Research Institute are spearing a major pan European Chinese research effort aimed at tackling plastic pollution, a global crisis of prodigious proportions.
The Horizon 2020 research innovation project, dubbed BioICEP (Bio Innovation of a Circular Economy for Plastic ), will seek to develop sustainable, environmentally-friendly alternatives to traditional petroleum-based plastic.
A number of innovative booster technologies are at the core of this solution - accentuating, expediting, and augmenting mixed plastics degradation to levels far in excess of those current achievable.
Drowning in plastic
Global production and consumption of plastic has grown exponentially in recent decades. Since the 1950s, approximately 8.3 billion tonnes of the material has been produced, sixty percent of which has ended up in landfill or the natural environment.
Researchers believe that it will take hundreds, if not thousands, of years for bacteria and the enzymes that they produce to evolve to a point where they can break down the long chains of molecules that compose plastic. As a result, the accumulation of plastic is causing serious problems in the environment.
According to Dr. Margaret Brennan Fournet, a foremost authority on materials science and leader of project BioICEP, there are microplastics in the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat. Scientists have even found them in remote mountain ranges.
“People may need to start using monitors, not just to measure air quality, but to measure the level of microplastics in the atmosphere – similar to how Geiger counters are used to measure radiation.
“It’s been suggested that people are ingesting a credit card-sized amount of plastic every week. These scientific results are only starting to come out now and every few months we are hearing new, even more staggering results,” Dr. Margaret Brennan Fournet emphasised.
Using an innovative triple action process, Dr Brennan Fournet and the BioICEP team will attempt to accelerate the degradation of traditional plastic and turn it into biopolymers, which can be used as natural biodegradable replacement plastics.
Indispensable to modern living
In many respects, plastic’s strength is actually its weakness. It’s sheer versatility and high resource efficiency has enabled innovations across many sectors, allowing for the development of new products and solutions.
Plastic has completely revolutionised how food is bought, stored and consumed. For example, beef that has been vacuum packed in multilayer plastic can last up to 45 days on the shelf. By extending the shelf life of food, food waste is kept to a minimum.
With dependency on petroleum-based plastic showing no sign of abating, the race is on to create viable, ecological alternatives that won’t negatively impact companies and consumers.
Plastic: In need of a rebrand
With more than one million plastic bottles being produced every minute, soft drinks manufacturers are under pressure to make their packaging more sustainable.
Companies like Coca-Cola have already started incorporating recycled PET, a plastic resin and member of the polyester family, into their packaging. Their goal is to make 100 percent of their packaging recyclable by 2025.
According to the Athlone-based researcher, plastic is in need of a total rebrand.
“At the end of the day, we’re extremely reliant on plastic. We need to be more considered in our approach to how we make and recycle it,” Dr Brennan Fournet commented.
While bioplastics research is still emerging and as of yet most materials don’t contain the performance properties required to ensure that they can be fully biodegraded, project BioICEP is a much-needed step in the right direction.
Researchers spearheading change
The €5 million project, which will span four years will be led by Athlone Institute of Technology, with a significant expert knowledge base and strong industry connections.
The BioICEP approach to tackling mixed plastic waste has the potential to circumvent many of the current challenges associated with plastic packaging materials which will be essential in resolving current environmental damage.
In total, nine countries have been selected to participate in the pan European Chinese research collaboration, each of whom represent different mixed plastic pollution environments.