UN Plastic treaty and making plastic from beer waste
Updated: May 26, 2022
Revisiting plastic today because of the recent announcement made at the UN. This is the second edition of covering plastic pollution - check out our earlier edition on the great pacific ocean garbage patch and the ocean cleanup project.
Did you know that the great ocean garbage patch is roughly half the size of India? If it was a country, it would be the 18th largest country - that’s the size of one of the three big patches of plastic garbage floating in just the pacific ocean!
What to expect today:
UN plastic waste treaty
The world has taken its biggest step yet to curb the plastic pollution crisis. The United Nations announced on Mar 2 that representatives of 175 countries have agreed to develop a first-of-its-kind global treaty to restrict plastic waste. The resolution followed negotiations over the past week at the fifth session of the U.N. Environment Assembly in Nairobi, Kenya.
How big is the plastic problem?
Oil is one of the primary raw materials to create plastic. If things were to continue the same way, by 2050, its estiamted that 20% of global oil production will be utilized towards plastic production. The proliferation of plastic has grown astronomically, from more than 2 million tons produced in 1950 to nearly 400 million tons produced in 2017, according to the U.N. More than 12 million tons of plastic waste flow into the world's oceans each year, the intergovernmental organization said, adding that that figure could triple by 2040. In addition, a 2021 assessment by the U.N. Environment Program estimated that less than 10 percent of the world's plastic has been recycled.
What was announced?
The U.N. said member states agreed to begin crafting a legally binding international agreement that addresses the "full lifecycle of plastic," from its production to its disposal. The U.N. said the treaty will not only curb the amount of plastic pollution, but will also reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with producing the material, since plastics are made from fossil fuels. World leaders will now have until the end of 2024 to craft the treaty, including settling details on funding and collaboration.
Bio-degradable plastic from beer waste
Breweries have tons of spent grain, and the home consumables have a plastics problem. Building a bridge between the two problems is Mi Terro, a Los Angeles based company that takes agricultural waste and processes it into proteins that can be used as a plastic replacement, animal feed and much more. The 5-person company just raised $1.5 million to start scaling up production. The company is currently valued at $10 million after the latest round of funding.
100% plant based packaging film
Think of Tide Pods — the material is very similar to the polyvinyl alcohol material that Tide Pods are made out of, except the product has zero microplastics, unlike the Tide Pods used today. The product is water soluble and can break down into water under room temperature. It is also biodegradable. The company’s in-house data indicates that to naturally degrade will take a year or so. In industrial composting facilities, it can decompose within 180 days.
How does it work?
Mi Terro’s process includes two steps: extracting polymers from the agricultural waste — including proteins, fibers and starch, then, when they have the polymers separated out, they modify them by grafting, which bonds monomers into polymers that then can be used in other manufacturing processes. The resulting material can be extruded — a similar process to making pasta; pressing a liquid-like material through a slit to shape it — which means it can be used in many applications where plastic is used today. The company can make straws, containers and boxes. The first products the company is making are flexible films — much like beer labels, Tide Pods and other packaging.
While the announcement by the UN is a welcome move and a step in the right direction, it will be really challenging to get all parties to come to a binding solution. Countries have till 2024 to figure out the fine print on plastic - things like cutting production levels, technology transfer agreements, funding for alternatives etc. UN treaties are notorious for being stuck and usually a watered down version gets signed off. However, companies like Mi-Terro (backed by ABinBev and Unilever) who are leading innovation in this space without waiting for governmental action gives us hope.
Recommendations from the team
Ocean Quiz - How much do you know about our Oceans? (I scored 9/9)
Youtube - Watch the Ocean cleanup project in action (7 min video)
Netflix - Seaspiracy - documentary on impact of fishing (1hr 30min documentary)