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Polymateria: Redesigning Plastic to Solve The Plastic Epidemic

A little while ago I went to the Knowledge Into Action Forum, which was run by ABIS (Academy of Business in Society) and hosted at the Unilever training centre. The focus was collaborating on how to drive innovation by putting sustainability at the core of business and research practices. The day was a mix of theory and practice from leaders in business and academia. It was a really interesting event with the afternoon session focusing on workshops to solve some business challenges faced by academics, NFPs and social enterprises.

The keynote address was by Niall Dunne, the CEO of Polymateria.
Polymateria are a fascinating organisation as they are at the forefront of commercialising the latest research into plastic innovation. Their mission is to advance science to help nature deal with plastic pollution. 

The evolution of sustainability in the office

Niall shared his experience with the evolution of sustainability in the corporate world. Working in a leading consultancy, he saw how different companies would assess the importance of sustainability by where it sat in the organisational structure.
‘It was originally seen as only risk management but over time it has become much- broader, strategy, brand, risk and corporate citizenship. Now the leaders are embedding it into all facets of their business.’

The evolution of plastic innovation

As education has increased in the public arena about plastic, more pressure has been put on science to develop new concepts. One of the pivotal moments was when Imogen Napper ‘exposed’ the lie of biodegradable plastic. From an article in the Guardian:

Imogen Napper, who led the study, said: After three years, I was really amazed that any of the bags could still hold a load of shopping. For biodegradable bags to be able to do that was the most surprising. When you see something labelled in that way, I think you automatically assume it will degrade more quickly than conventional bags. But, after three years at least, our research shows that might not be the case.”About half of plastics are discarded after a single use and considerable quantities end up as litter.

From The Guardian article ‘Biodegradable’ plastic bags survive three years in soil and sea’

Ultimately this shows that the real answer for stopping plastic is to simply stop using it! There have been great strides taken to limit the plastic bag usage around the world, however it has by no means stopped the epidemic. Plastic bags are only one part of the consumer value chain with plastic packaging of food products are still often a necessary evil.

Polymateria is supportive of the circular economy principles as there are a range of solutions required to stop plastic waste. It seems that there are a never ending list of ‘Rs’ within the circular economy including Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Refurbish, Repair and Recycle. Polymateria have come up with another ‘R’ – Redesign.

What is Polymateria’s solution?

From their website, their Biotransformation technology converts the hydrocarbon backbone of a plastic product into an oligomeric material in 2 ways:

  • 1. Breaks up / cuts the links in the polymer chain to produce smaller oligomeric and discrete chemical compounds, i.e. reduces the molecular weight.
  • 2. Chemically transforms the super-hydrophobic hydrocarbon polymer backbone into a hydrophilic material capable of interaction with the natural environment, confirmed by Carbonyl Index.

This approach causes no microplastics, which is a big step from other solutions. Many of the biodegradable shopping bag solutions actually just fracture the polymer chain so it only becomes smaller. If I try to draw a simple analogy that is by no means perfect, that approach is similar to shredding paper, whereas Polymateria’s approach is a bit more like creating paper pulp. They are breaking down the atoms that are bound by molecules so that they can then be individually attacked by the natural biodegrading process.
Below is an infographic from their website:

Their technology develops new approaches to plastic materials for those items that have no other solutions excepts single use plastic. Here are some of the insights I learnt about how Polymateria is driving cutting edge plastic innovation.

1. Collaboration

Individual scientists cannot solve the issue of plastic alone. Niall learned of this challenge first hand. When they started their research, they first looked a previous biodegradable efforts and why it wasn’t working.  Why was science not able to solve this issue? Was it funding or capability or both? 
As the word got out about their work, philanthropists wanted to chat with Polymer scientists and biologists to understand it further. Then chemists came in. Before they knew it, they had various scientists all in a room contributing their expertise from biodiversity to chemical composition. This breakthrough was largely due to having different experts in the room who could take a holistic approach to understanding the plastic problem.

2. Timing

Companies have an idea of what the end of life scenario is for food packaging based on the food enclosed. Shelf life is usually between 6 month and 3 years so why do we have plastic packaging that lasts for literally a million years?! Once this conversation happened with food distributors, it changed the time control and design of plastic so the end of life scenario could be shortened.
Niall also spoke about understanding the manufacturing value chain as it can often take 18 months to change one material. Working with the companies to increase their value chain agility was critical to their success. ‘The one thing we don’t have is time, when it comes to plastic.’ This is so true and it is important to understand the whole system from creation to consumption in order to intervene at key points.

3. Open Source Technology

One of the important things that Polymateria have done is create some open source components to their innovation. Understanding that they don’t have all the answers, they have opened up some of their research to the broader community so they can use it to innovation.
This is something Elon Musk is known for, when he open sourced his patents at Tesla:

“We believe that Tesla, other companies making electric cars, and the world would all benefit from a common, rapidly-evolving technology platform.”

“Technology leadership is not defined by patents, which history has repeatedly shown to be small protection indeed against a determined competitor, but rather by the ability of a company to attract and motivate the world’s most talented engineers. We believe that applying the open source philosophy to our patents will strengthen rather than diminish Tesla’s position in this regard.”

“Tesla Motors was created to accelerate the advent of sustainable transport. If we clear a path to the creation of compelling electric vehicles, but then lay intellectual property landmines behind us to inhibit others, we are acting in a manner contrary to that goal. Tesla will not initiate patent lawsuits against anyone who, in good faith, wants to use our technology.

From Tesla’s open letter, which you can read more here.

Overall

The plastic waste problem is not going away overnight. There are a range of players who are acting to solve it. Polymateria’s approach is one that will help in the short term as consumer behaviour and corporate manufacturing still seem so reliant on plastic. Their solution is a huge step as it allows complete biodegradation without creating microplastics. The exciting thing about Niall and their team is that they are continually collaborating with a range of stakeholders to create new to world solutions. By creating open source innovation with some of their patents, they are enabling the acceleration of the research and commercialisation which will be a major contributor to solving the plastic crisis.

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