The world is drowning in plastic – and that’s not a metaphor.
At least eight million tonnes of plastic floats into our oceans every year, most of it plastic packaging – food wrappers, plastic bags, empty water bottles and the rest. No-one can know for sure, but the best available estimates say there’s more than 150 million tonnes of plastic waste in our oceans today. Some estimates hold that there is five trillion pieces of plastic in the oceans. According to Aquapak’s Impact Report (from May this year), if “this continues at the anticipated rate there will be 1 tonne of plastic for every 3 tonnes of fish in the ocean by 2025, and by 2050 more plastic than fish (by weight).”
While there are some truly innovative approaches to cleaning up plastic junk from the oceans (such as this Dutch venture), wouldn’t it be a good idea if the plastic never made it into the oceans in the first place? Or, failing that, can we make plastic which if it does enter the seas, would break down naturally and cause no damage to humans, animals and marine life?
Enter Aquapak, a relatively new and highly innovative Social Stock Exchange member company.
Aquapak has developed a multi-purpose polymer for packaging which is 100% recyclable and 100% biodegradable. In other words, it promises to revolutionise the world of plastic packaging – and help stop polluting the world’s oceans. And it’s on the verge of delivering on that promise; its first plant, in Birmingham in the UK, a 50,000 square foot factory, will be going into production of this revolutionary plastic early in 2017. By the end of next year it will be operating at a rate of 10,000 tonnes/year, and is expandable up to 30,000 tonnes on that site.
We spoke to Julian Attfield, Aquapak’s finance director, to get some deeper insight into the company’s structure, and what makes its plastic special.
“Systems adi Group is currently the main shareholder and has funded our R&D since 2010. What’s happening is that we are doing a fund-raising to complete to take the business into its growth phase. During that time they will become a significant but minority shareholder. One of the routes we are exploring to do the fund-raising is via the Social Stock Exchange. We are looking to raise £5 million at this stage to complete our manufacturing, with a second £5 million to fund working capital and capital expansion in the second quarter of next year,” he explains.
Aquapak’s product is a mono-material polymer, which Attfield puts into layman’s language: “It’s made of one main material. A lot of modern plastic packaging that has been designed to be highly functional, is made using multi-layered polymers. If you have a mixture of different materials it makes the recycling impossible, unless separation and recovery is cost-effective. Producing a plastic which is made from a single material makes it much easier to process in waste recovery and to recycle.”
But it’s not just easier to process and recycle. Says Attfield: “What we’ve tried to do is to get a really high functionality from that one material, while maintaining the environmental advantage that our material is water soluble at a controllable range of temperature and hence naturally breaks down in the presence of water into harmless substances. The product is therefore assimilated into the environment without causing pollution, and you can even recover it via a very simple chemical process and recycle it completely. So it’s a total ‘circular economy’ product.”
So does this water solubility mean that a plastic bag, for example, made from Aquapak’s polymer is going to fall apart during a rain shower?
“Not if the polymer in question in question is designed to be robust in such circumstances. We have been focusing on creating a range of formulations of our polymer, which gives it functionality depending on the particular application ” says Attfield. “The initial targeted applications are for food packaging, food waste and as anti-infection barriers, where the water solubility at medium temperatures is desirable. Its toughness compared with standard polymers, strong oxygen barrier, natural antistatic properties and barrier properties to detergents and petrochemicals make it suitable for a wide range of other applications where non-biodegradable plastics are currently used. For very wet environments we would have to process our material with a more impervious material (which could be separated and recovered from ours) or specially treated in some way.”
There are also some interesting possibilities emerging for injection-moulded plastics, such as solid food trays for meats. There’s a huge environmental problem with disposing/recycling of flexible plastic packaging used with meats. “Basically, once this packaging has become contaminated it cannot be recovered. But because our product is water soluble at high temperatures it can be recovered and then flushed away without causing any environmental damage,” says Attfield. “Significantly for modern biological waste handling, our plastic packaging can also be recycled through anaerobic digestion [AD]. This is a very big point for us, as even the currently used biodegradable packaging, which has starch content, has to be removed before the waste can be treated in the AD system. Our plastic can be put it straight into the AD plant, or is easily separated from the biological waste prior to processing using hot water. The efficiencies for waste management companies and AD business are significant.
While Aquapak’s feedstock currently is a fossil source, Attfield says the aim is eventually to switch, where possible, to a non-fossil (and therefore more sustainable) bio-feedstock, which “will ensure we complete the sustainability criteria.”
Having plastic that is water soluble is such a great idea; surely others are trying to get into this space too? Attfield says: “we are very happy for other competitors in the bio-degradable space, because obviously that establishes the market for the biodegradables and the total addressable market is huge. There are other biodegradables out there, which are mostly blends of polyester and starch. Starch adds strength, but it takes time to break down in the environment, and flexible packaging tends to be thin and flimsy.”
The environmental credentials of Aquapak’s product are well known and well established, as it is used as a coating for paper, to toughen car windscreens and in detergent pouches, where it is flushed into the waste streams. If it gets into the oceans, as it actually likes water (it’s hydrophilic, to use a technical term), it will sink, gradually soften and fall apart, to be safely eaten by the bugs in the ocean and sea-life. It doesn’t attract toxins, unlike many other water repellent plastics.
Aquapak is a fan of the Social Stock Exchange, according to Attfield: “Being a member of the Social Stock Exchange has given us access to the investment community which has the same focus that we have – on the circular economy. We used the Exchange as our first platform to show our technology. It’s a growing group and they seem to be broadening their reach into the environmental technology field, which is good for us.”
The feeling is mutual – anything which helps keep our oceans clean has got to be welcomed.
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The world is drowning in plastic – and that’s not a metaphor.