Our dependence on fossil fuels, namely petroleum, is one of the biggest accelerators of climate change. Despite the obvious promise of solar, wind, geothermal and other renewable energy sources, the critics say we can’t live without oil. Not because we can’t power our homes and cars with something else, but because we’re addicted to plastic.
Plastic is part of nearly everything we touch, from packaging to electronics. It’s in our carpets, and bathrooms, and closets. It’s used in so many products because it’s “cheap” and durable.
Globally, we went from consuming 50 million tonnes of plastic per year in 1950 to 245 million tonnes in 2008, according to Plastics Europe. And it’s estimated that around 50 percent of that plastic is only used once, sometimes for mere minutes, before we throw it away. This plastic addiction has create massive environmental problems while simultaneously making the fossil fuel industry feel very loved.
“The production of plastic uses an incredible amount of fossil fuels. Most estimates put the figure at around 8% of the world’s oil production, 4% of which is actually used in energy consumption to make the plastic,” reports Plastic Oceans.
Since we seem to be incapable of going without plastic (or recycling it at rates that would really make a difference), the world’s leading inventors and scientists are on a quest to make plastic out of something–anything–besides oil. Here are five of the most promising ideas:
5 Oil-Free Ways to Make Plastic
1. Shrimp Shells and Wood Flour
As Treehugger reports, researchers at Harvard’s Wyss Institute have developed a new bioplastic from chitosan derived from shrimp shells. Chitosan is a form of chitin, a natural polymer said to be the second most abundant organic material on Earth. Although the scientists had trouble getting the bioplastic, dubbed “Shrilk,” to hold its shape, they solved the problem by adding in another waste material: wood ‘flour’.
2. Air Pollution
Talk about two birds with one stone. A California-based chemical technologies company has developed a manufacturing technology that captures airborne carbon, a major health and environmental hazard, and turns it into a replacement for oil-based plastics. ”By using carbon that would otherwise be in the air we are breathing right now, AirCarbon turns everyday goods into products that actually improve the environment,” said Mark Herrema, CEO, in a press release. “Combined with a cost profile that is more favorable than oil-based plastics, AirCarbon has the potential to change the world.”
3. Banana Peels
Bananas are delicious and nutritious, but we may have been tossing their most valuable asset into the garbage pail for centuries. In 2013, sixteen-year-old Turkish student Elif Bilgin discovered that the the starches and cellulose in banana peels are perfect for making a non-decaying bioplastic. Bilgin hopes the banana bioplastic could be used to insulate wires and form medical protheses, reducing our dependence on oil-based plastic.
One thing that we’ll always have in abundance (as long as humans roam the Earth) is sewage. Anywhere humans have settled, there’s bound to be a sewage treatment center nearby. Recently, a company called Newlight Technologies, LLC developed a way to capture the methane and carbon dioxide emanating from these facilities, and turn it into plastic. “First, a mix of gases, including methane and carbon dioxide, is funneled into a reactor. Next, carbon and oxygen are separated out, and then they are reassembled into a long-chain thermopolymer (aka: a form of plastic),” explains CleanTechnica.
About 15 million tons of whey are produced each year by European cheese manufacturers, yet only a tiny portion of that whey is reused as food additives or supplements. A group of companies in the EU is working on technology that would allow them to turn this unwanted by-product into something useful, like bioplastic. The biodegradable material is said to be air tight and water resistant, making it ideal for food packaging.
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