can we make plastic sustainable?
Author: Katie Runk
Published: September 20, 2021
The company Newlight Technologies has created a product called AirCarbon: a carbon-negative bioplastic that uses greenhouses gases rather than oil to make plastic material. The greenhouse gases methane and carbon dioxide are used as carbon sources that cause a reduction in atmospheric carbon levels, thus combatting global warming. The amount of greenhouse gases captured from the air outweigh any emissions produced by the largely renewable-generated manufacturing process, making the plastic carbon-negative rather than just carbon-neutral. In addition, not only is AirCarbon vastly more sustainable than traditional plastic, but it is also more cost-effective to manufacture while still being on-par with plastic performance. The company currently makes chairs, bags, and cell phone cases, and other consumer products using this biodegradeable plastic, but could be expanded towards a wider array of products rather than just commercial goods. Notable manufacturers in the furniture, electronics, and packaging industries have signed contracts with Newlight Technologies, including IDEA, Vinmar, and Paques.
Co-founder and CEO of Newlight Technologies Mark Herrema is quoted as saying, "climate change can be solved, and market-driven solutions like AirCarbon that reverse the flow of carbon can be part of how we get there." The sustainability solution is helping the world become more sustainable by improving responsible consumption and production without needing to dramatically alter the habits of individual consumers. Although consumerism is a pressing issue, the convenience of this product allows it to make mass and immediate effect without disrupting the efficiency values of the public, which will hopefully lead the way to more sustainable consumer habits. Our current rate of oil production also has a myriad of environmental risks, especially on our oceans, and is a primary source of marine pollution, whether this be through direct contamination or through the toxic plastics produced by oil. Reducing demand for these oil-based products will help to improve the quality of marine ecosystems, which will benefit its biosystem as well as humanity, and will allow the ocean to operate as it should and be able to capture even more greenhouse gasses out of the atmosphere.
While there is no data on direct impacts of people in relation to this solution, the implications of AirCarbon and potential large scope impacts are vast. I would argue that plastic production and the culture surrounding it are one of the top sustainability issues, creating issues for climate health, human rights, pollution, and economic inequality. So, the introduction and expansion of substances such as AirCarbon can help to mindfully address these issues with all parties concerned. Direct pollution of plastic materials contaminates landscapes and water sources for millions of people who don't have access to alternative means or the social power to resist it, but a clean and biodegradable plastic would not release toxins during its production or disposal. The outsourcing of waste from privileged countries to vulnerable areas and burning of that waste has created health pandemics for these populations, so the transition into AirCarbon will help cut the flow of garbage and improve their quality of life.
Although technological innovations such as this one will become powerful tools for combatting climate change, it is important not to become reliant on faith in technology. Protecting and maintaining our environment will require behavioral changes from billions of people, specifically people in privileged states where they have the resources and autonomy giving them the power of choice. Our infatuation with plastic is symbolic for mainstream society's prioritization of convenience, cheapness, and consumption, which are values that rank far above human rights, environmental health, and consideration for future generations. It's up to us to eliminate plastic and protect the nature and people of our planet from being destroyed.
In our society, plastic is at the epicenter of our everyday existence. Many of us have never known a world without plastic and cannot imagine a world in which plastic is not incorporated into almost every part of our lives. Right now, every object in my backpack incorporates plastic somewhere in its design. It is inescapable.
In the mid-20th century, plastic began its global conquest, serving as a cheap and pliable material that catalyzed consumer culture, especially in the middle class. The commonly oil-based good is utilized in every sector of industry and manufacturing, from agriculture, to beauty products, to technology. The warnings of its negative environmental impacts were present from the beginning, but its low price and infinite applicability was too tempting for corporations to ignore. Unfortunately, the consequences created by the era of plastic have become undeniable. The inherently toxic material has contaminated every inch of our planet, even the air we breathe. Microplastics, which are simply very very tiny fragments of discarded plastic, have been detected in even the most remote areas of Earth, and each of us are constantly breathing the particles into our lungs, violating even our bodies.
Every stage of plastic production, consumption, and disposal has a severely negative impact on the environment and the people of our planet. Ultimately, the consequences of its use outweigh the benefits, but we continue to use it, the general population kept ignorant and distracted from the truth of this so-called essential material. While its pervasiveness is certainly cause for concern, the growing societal awareness of its damaging effect has sparked innovation to address the issue.