This article is the first of a three-part series on innovations across the plastics value chain.
It’s difficult to imagine life without plastics. I know — plastics permeate virtually all aspects of our life. It’s cheap. It’s durable. It’s light. It’s also convenient.
But many of us forget that today’s modern plastics were once, not too long ago, the new kid on the block. The first synthetic plastic was a child of the 20th century, fathered by Belgian chemist Leo Hendrik Baeland. Plastic only took off in the 1950s due to mass production, with petroleum-based plastics dominating the industry.
Since then, the advent of plastics have brought about a slew of improvements to our lives.
Plastic, easily manufactured at scale and at low cost, increased the shelf life of food products and thus enabled the transport of such food over longer distances to remote areas. Sanitation standards in healthcare increased by leaps and bounds with disposable surgical gloves, syringes and IV tubes, all made from single-use plastics. Plastic, a critical component of the, also made possible the development of computers, mobile phones and televisions.
The rest is history — an irrelevant, faraway history in today’s plastics-dominated world. So we set off down the path of our forefathers, with our sights set on the future. What does this future look like?
Semakau filling up by 2035 (or earlier?). As buried plastics leach into the ground and incineration of plastics produce toxins, long-term health effects start to show. Ocean plastic pollution to triple by 2040. In 2050, more plastics in the ocean than fish by weight. Microplastics making their way into marine wildlife and back into the bodies of their creator.
This bleak business-as-usual future was set off by a group of creative minds from the petroleum industry. Could that mean that, perhaps, just perhaps, as the 20th-century invention changed our lives, innovation could also reshape the future of the world as we know it today?
Innovation could help us take the next evolutionary step towards a plastic-lite society. This article is the first of a three-part series on innovations across the plastics value chain, beginning with alternative packaging.
Alternatives to plastic packaging would have a huge impact on our society. Globally, packaging is the biggest single use of plastic, accounting for more than a quarter of the 348 million tonnes of annual plastic production worldwide. The average Singaporean uses 13 plastic bags a day. With only 4% of our plastics being recycled, these plastics eventually make their way to the trash. Plastics make up more than half of our packaging waste, which amounts to a third of Singapore’s 1.6 million tonnes of domestic waste in 2018. Most of this plastic waste is incinerated in Singapore, producing greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide which exacerbates climate change. The leftover burn ash is then transported to our Semakau landfills, which will run out of space by 2035. Sustainable alternatives to plastics packaging could help to allay some of these downstream concerns.
It is a common misconception that biodegradable plastics is an adequate solution. Unfortunately, biodegradable plastics are a non-starter in Singapore. Biodegradable plastics are given no chance to showcase their biodegradable potential, as plastics are incinerated and not buried in landfills. Hypothetically, even if they are buried, most of these biodegradable plastics would not fulfil their fullest potential as they often require highly specific conditions for degradation. In fact, the EU has already recognised the harm of biodegradable plastics and has effected a ban against biodegradable plastics.
I could give you the old spiel about the 3Rs, the all-too-familiar set of recommended practices in today’s plastics-dominated world. Unfortunately, most plastics actually can’t be recycled or reused. Many plastic products are multi-material, making them difficult to be recycled. Most products are also designed to be single-use. Notably, some existing alternatives are not real solutions to the plastics problem. For example, some biodegradable plastics are more resource-intensive, while oxo-degradable plastics could disrupt the recycling process when inadvertently mixed with conventional plastics.
As much as we try to encourage the 3Rs or make do with existing “solutions”, more needs to be done. And more can be done. Substitute “more” for “innovation”. While there is plenty of opportunity for innovation across the plastics value chain, arguably the most groundbreaking of innovations would truly break the cycle of using plastics to begin with. Innovation at the production stage calls for alternatives to plastic packaging.
Enter bioplastic innovations. These are derived from biomass sources such as plant crops and microbiota, unlike today’s petroleum-based plastics. These plastics are more environmentally friendly than conventional plastics, as they tap on renewable sources instead of unsustainable fossil fuels. They are also more likely to biodegrade and break down than petroleum-based plastics, making them viable solutions for cities which use landfills for waste disposal
Interestingly, many innovative bioplastics seem to use some sort of homegrown natural resource. (This, by the way, is good for the carbon footprint as it eliminates the need for imports.) Biolive has developed a range of biodegradable bioplastic granules using olive seeds that are easily integrated into the packaging production process. In the UK, MarinaTex is a compostable material made of fish skin and scales – 500,000 tons of which are generated annually in the UK alone – bound with red algae, that can replace single-use plastic films such as bakery bags and sandwich packs.
In Singapore, we’re all too familiar with the narrative that this little red dot has little resources to spare. Thankfully, that didn’t stop the team behind homegrown plastic alternative Chitowrap.
NTU Professor William Chen, the brains behind the technology enabling Chitowrap, shared about his journey uncovering value in food waste, deemed useless and unwanted by society and tossed out. “We looked at things that others did not want to see, and we found value in it,” he shared. Food waste almost sounds glamorous with all the attention it has been getting in recent years, but Prof Chen was quick to remind me that food waste really stinks.
I’m glad he put up with the smell, because he uncovered the value of chitin, a substance found in the exoskeleton of crustaceans such as prawns, shrimps and crabs. Together with founders Karen and Herbin of startup Alterpacks, the team created Chitowrap, a price-competitive biodegradable alternative packaging with antimicrobial properties that makes it a suitable alternative to plastic food packaging. The zero-waste material is biodegradable and compostable within 100 days.
Singapore-based biotech startup RWDC Industries has also developed a safe and sustainable alternative in a mission to replace single-use petroleum-based plastics. Its solution, Solon, is material made up of PHA naturally derived from primarily-used cooking oil. The PHA has been certified to be fully biodegradable in soil, water and marine solutions, and can be used for cutlery, cups, bags, plates and bowls. It will first be introduced to our shores as a drinking straw. As Singapore recognises the limitation of waste incineration, perhaps the increased access to and availability of biodegradable materials could pave the way for alternative and more innovative waste disposal solutions in Singapore such as dedicated, safe plants for biodegrading.
It’s true that Singapore is not generously endowed with natural resources, but the team behind Chitowrap taught me that it pays to pay attention. On her travels around the region, Karen paid attention to the problem of plastics. Together with Herbin, the team paid attention to the shortcomings of existing materials and known solutions. They paid attention to Prof Chen’s cutting-edge research. And Prof Chen paid attention to the world around him: from the sheer volume of food waste generation by businesses and households, to the science behind the higher rate of food waste decomposition. Sometimes, the treasure is hidden in plain sight.
Then it hit me. The narrative might be right after all — Singapore’s most precious resource is, indeed, our talent. Innovation happens in the human mind, and Singapore sure has plenty of that.
While Singapore has its fair share of STEM talent, admittedly, not all of us are scientifically or technically-inclined. But that’s no excuse, because innovation is not confined to the laboratory. Innovative business models count too.
A few years ago, I began to notice a smell as I strolled in shopping malls. It was a strong, penetrating smell. An intoxicating blend of citrus, hints of lavender, maybe some moringa. I later traced it to Lush, a cosmetic retailer that sprouted across malls islandwide. Lush had taken the world by storm, not only because of the amazing smells, but also because of its innovative business model in the area of sustainability. Lush had a simple alternative to plastics packaging – so simple that it makes you wonder why you hadn’t thought of it first. No packaging.
This concept of “naked” products has been imported to other business models too. In food, no packaging often means bulk foods in refilling containers. Zero-waste grocery and lifestyle concept store Unpackt is a neat store in Ang Mo Kio which lays out refilling containers filled with all sorts of goodies: nuts, oats, cereal, biscuits, you name it.
If it’s amazing what one talented and determined mind can achieve, think about the vast possibilities if people come together in the spirit of collaboration. Unpackt partners its next-door neighbour coffee shops to supply their unwanted items such as plastic milk bottles and containers to Unpackt, who makes these available to unprepared consumers. Unpackt has also collaborated with Taiwanese brand Agooday to distribute Pockeat, an aesthetically designed handy food bag that’s reusable and food-safe. It’s truly fashionable to be eco-friendly (pun intended).
There are plenty of other possible business models. Local online grocer Redmart, with its trademark biodegradable plastic bags storing our weekly happy hauls of groceries, had, for example, plans to trial reusable bags with its customers, which would be contingent on establishing a returns process. In a bid to further reduce their use of plastic packaging, they are also exploring alternatives to plastic cable-ties, tape and shrink wrap.
Some innovators, creative as they may be, remain highly practical and sharp. Their solutions acknowledge an underlying persisting problem in society: stubborn, unchanging consumer habits. Australian startup Varden uses paper made from plant waste to replace plastic in disposable, single-use items such as coffee pods and plasters. The solution Paperseal has the tremendous potential to redesign consumer packaging. If you can’t beat them, join them — and then change them.
That brings to fore another key issue to achieving a more sustainable future.
As startups and corporates pioneer innovative technologies and novel business models, us end-consumers shouldn’t miss out on the action too. There’s loads of action needed on our part. Are you willing to try out these new products and services? This could mean stepping out of our comfort zone to try something foreign to you. Are you willing to adopt new habits and practices, and integrate them into your life? This probably means a change in your lifestyle. Short of a price-competitive alternative, are you willing to pay a premium for the products you buy?
I hope that your answer is yes. As businesses push the frontiers of technology and innovation, I hope that as a people, we can also push the frontiers of our mindset in this plastics-dominated world.
Chrystal currently works with local and international startups in Enterprise Singapore to support their innovation and internationalisation journey. Trained in law, she is striving to advance environmental and climate change laws in Singapore, in the belief that Singapore can be a small but shining beacon of sustainability in our corner of the world.