Quitting plastics – Design for life

Parts of a human being can dissolve into soil in less than 40 days after death. A human being that might have performed for more than 70 years with a huge positive impact on our society.

A plastic tray might dissolve into dust 2000 years after usage. A plastic tray that has performed in less than a week as packaging for some chicken legs being transported from the slaughterhouse to your kitchen.

Biodegradability is one of Nature´s most fascinating inventions. Still, we humans have invented new materials that deny this most fundamental principle of our planet’s survival – the circular ecological system. Take plastics; single use plastics survive 100 000 times their usage while some organic materials only require 0,001 of its usage time to return to its origin as soil. Soil hosting new seeds to grow and create new organic material. The circle of life. 

Plastics have some fantastic features and have spoiled us. We have become used to expecting unlimited life in PET-bottles holding water or plastic film covering coffee cups that can be used over and over again. Still, we use them only once and then throw them away. 75% of all plastics ever produced have become waste and remain waste. Plastic things are simply not designed for their actual life of usage.

Nature is brilliant in packaging its products. Humans are not. Take apples; their fruit peel keeps its content, the fruit pulp, fresh and protected from germs and insects exactly as long as it should.

Homo sapiens pack their products in shells that last forever. Just because we can…..?

The survival of the planet requires that we learn from Nature and design our packages for their actual life of usage. Design for Life.

Plastics are far too enduring to be used for packaging of chicken meat, razor blades, sushi and screws or serving drinks in. There is a real urgency to utilize alternative packaging materials with a shelf life harmonizing with what it is supposed to host. One of these materials is paper.

A hamburger clam shell, a straw or a coffee cup should start to decompose within days after usage. A yoghurt cup, meat tray or bottle cap should become soil in months after being disposed in Nature.

– Yes, disposed in Nature, just because this is the fundamental global issue here. You might ask – who would throw packages in Nature?

So far, we have thrown out 79% out of the 6.3 billion metric tons of our plastic waste in Nature. It is called landfills. Meaning: at some point, much of it ends up in the oceans. Nature’s refined water flow, from subsoil water via streams and rivers, transport plastics in flakes or larger litter all the way out to our oceans, the final sink.

In some countries, like Sweden, recycling is perceived as the solution. The bad news is: So far only 9% has been recycled globally. Recycling is not a realistic solution for decades to come. At least not for plastics. The infrastructure to collect, transport and re-use disposed material is simply not in place. Landfills will remain as the only solution for collecting waste for many global regions for a long time. Europe recycles 30%, China 25% and USA only 9%. Several regions don’t recycle at all.

The good news is: Paper is the world’s most recycled material after industrial steel and aluminum. So if any material can be a candidate to support an accelerated build-up of global recycling infrastructure, paper is.

But the fact remains, we still have to design disposal packages and take away items for bio-degradation in Nature. If we cannot recycle ourselves, we should utilize our Planets own recycling system. We should borrow organic fibers from Nature, refine them to packages, cups, bowls and hangers and immediately after usage return them to Nature for biodegradation. The coffee cup will be recycled into new cups after its journey into soil, nutrition to tree seeds and becoming a tree where we can borrow new organic fibers for new cups.

Some call this a circular economy opposed to present linear economy where we pump up oil, refine it into plastics and products that will become waste that is about to drown us all.

There are many engineers in the world trying to replace plastics with something renewable, recyclable and most importantly, something biodegradable. At PulPac we have invented a method to dry form cellulose fibers into 3D objects that have plastic like features. But, as we all know, paper absorbs water and is not as gas repellant as plastic can be. The reason being that cellulose fibers are organic and work in Nature’s own recycling system.

There are many ways to make paper withstand water. One way is to add plastics. That is not a good idea. A few ways are organic, like using wax. But the whole point with Design for Life is to use exactly as much wax as needed to withstand water, coffee, coke or chicken blood for the life of the cup or package. Not a single week longer than needed. Because if we do, we will continue to burden the Nature’s ecosystem, again.

Single use items should dissolve into soil a.s.a.p. A sushi tray should have a life of 12 hours. A salad bowl should withstand moisture and dressing for 24 hours. A meat tray for chicken legs should have a life of a week. A yoghurt bowl two weeks and a water bottle should have a shelf time of a year.

This will be the challenge for us engineers. It will also be a challenge for all of us consumers. We must change our mindset and accept that the grease from French fries starts to bleed through the pouch after an hour or two. The salad bowl will be soft in the rain and a hanger from your fashion store is not suited for drying wet laundry.

Let’s take the hanger case. At present, PulPac is supporting its licensee Ekoligens to ramp up production of paper hangers to the fashion industry. Billions of plastic hangers are presently produced globally each year. As any single or twice used plastic, the majority of these hangers end up as waste in landfills, starting their long journey out to the oceans. These hangers have a limited task; to transport a garment from a plant or a warehouse to the store and present it to you, the customer.

Except for withstanding some steam, these hangers will not be exposed to water. But when they eventually are, they should decompose as quickly as possible. In many countries these hangers will be recycled as cardboard. They will be re-pulped using water and recycled into a new paper product. For countries that don’t recycle, the natural process of recycling should start immediately when the first rain drops start doing their job at the landfill.

These hangers will be Designed for Life – their particular life. They will be a small step toward a circular economy. But please accept, they are not good for hanging wet laundry. Please buy wood hangers for that purpose.

Saving the planet from plastics will engage us all for a long time to come.

Wikipedia/ Bio-gradation

This article was originally published on LinkedIn by Ove Larsson, Director PulPac AB.