American author Leo Buscaglia said that: “Change is the end result of all true learning.” However, for the plastics crisis, change isn’t happening quickly enough according to Duncan Clark, head of business operations at biodegradable biopolymer platform Teysha Technologies, who explains that education is fundamental to changing our plastic-use habits.
According to the UK Department of Education, teenaged pupils will be able to study a new natural history GCSE starting in September 2025, which aims to educate them on how to protect the planet. As well as learning about the evolution of species, students will be taught about the impact of human activity on natural habitats.
This is certainly a step in the right direction, and one which will equip children with the knowledge needed to better conserve the planet. However, if we are to achieve net zero by 2050, this education needs to start now with pupils learning to form better habits around using plastic.
Teaching the shocking statistics
According to the United Nations Environment Project (UNEP), the equivalent of one garbage truck load of plastic is dumped into our oceans every minute. If this isn’t bad enough, a 2022 review of over 2,590 studies revealed that ocean plastic pollution levels are likely to quadruple by 2050, pushing areas to exceed the dangerous threshold of microplastic concentration.
As well as contributing towards climate change, plastic pollution also poses a health risk to animals and humans. For example, in July 2021, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) concluded the cause of death of a stranded sperm whale had been abdominal inflammation caused by ingesting nearly 30 kilograms of plastic. While it’s hard to know exactly how much marine life is killed every year by plastic pollution, it’s thought to be approximately 100,000 animals.
Plastic pollution on animal health, while important, isn’t the only health risk. To encourage the next generation of policy makers to change plastic habits, the risk on human health should also be learned in schools.
A recent study from early 2022 found that people with more severe IBD symptoms had 1.5 times more microplastic particles per gram in their faeces compared to healthy controls. There have been few studies investigating the impact of plastic on human health. Not only will teaching these statistics in schools inspire further research in this field, but it may also accelerate the search for sustainable plastic alternatives.
Is bioplastic sustainable?
According to European Bioplastics, global production of bioplastics is set to increase from 2.42 million tonnes in 2021 to 7.59 million tonnes by 2026. While this may seem like impressive growth, currently 36% of production capacity is allocated to non-biodegradable materials. This begs the question, are bioplastics truly sustainable?
Let’s look at Coca-Cola’s PlantBottle, made from bio-based polyethylene (bio-PET), for example. Launched in 2009, Coca-Cola replaced 30% of the petroleum used to make PET bottles with material derived from sugar cane. As a result, PlantBottle has achieved the equivalent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions as taking one million vehicles off the road.
This is certainly a starting point for reducing plastic’s environmental impact. However, it’s important that people are taught about issues around biodegradability. Because bio-PET is partially derived from petrochemicals, it still relies on finite fossil fuels and requires energy and resource-intensive industrial catalysts to degrade within a reasonable period. In natural, open environments, the degradation process may still take decades and therefore, the material is still a risk to the wider environment if not disposed of correctly.
Equipping school-aged children with the knowledge around biodegradability will help to grow interest in sustainable biopolymers. And, as the interest in bioplastics grows, so will innovation.
Biodegradable biopolymers, such as those developed by Teysha Technologies, are showing promise as plastic alternatives. This technology may eventually lead the transition away from non-renewable, petroleum-based plastics.
The past year has seen Teysha achieve a landmark breakthrough in its second-generation biopolymer, now a certified biodegradable material after OECD 310 testing. Made from natural feedstocks like agricultural waste, this versatile polymer can be physically, mechanically and chemically tuned to meet the needs of many industries, from packaging to microbeads in cosmetics.
The fact that their hydrolytic breakdown can be tuned will overcome many of the challenges of existing bioplastics — and unlike conventional biopolymers, they can be made to biodegrade in nature without the use of industrial catalysts.
So, Buscalgia’s famous quotation really does ring true to the plastics crisis. Education is fundamental to preparing us with the knowledge around plastics and biodegradability. Hopefully, this advanced level of learning will lead to real change.
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