A technology startup near Ontario’s leafy border with Michigan says it has the answer to the world’s plastic pollution problem: sawdust.
Origin Materials is getting ready to pay sawmills in the area $20 a ton for the scraps left over in the process of turning logs into lumber, which it will use to make recyclable plastic bottles that remove carbon-dioxide from the sky because they’re made from sustainably sourced wood waste. Nestle, Danone and PepsiCo plan to sell water in Origin’s recyclable plant-based bottles in early 2022.
It’s one of the many unconventional ways conceived by scientists to reduce the world’s reliance on plastics made from petroleum, which emit as much climate-damaging pollutants as 189 coal plants each year from production to incineration. Other so-called bio-based plastics are being developed from sugar, corn, algae, seaweed, sewage and even dead beetles.
“Consumers are caring about plastic in a way that they haven’t in a long time, maybe ever,” said John Bissell, 34, who founded Origin Materials in 2008 and has spent 10 years working as an engineer developing alternative plastics that don’t contribute to climate change. “Everyday things like bottles and clothing can now become carbon negative, but remain otherwise functionally identical.”
That may be true in theory, but phasing out petroleum-based plastics will be an uphill battle. Use of the material has become so ingrained for societies around the world that about half of all new oil demand through 2040 will come from petrochemicals, an industry that relies on plastics for most of its business, according to BloombergNEF. The $500 billion global plastics market is responsible for 5% of greenhouse gas emissions, Friends of the Earth data show. Some projections see that ratio tripling in the next 30 years.
Plant-based plastics, especially varieties made from sugar cane, are starting to seep into the mainstream as companies try to respond to consumers who are increasingly angry about the ecologically devastating impact of plastics. London-based Bulldog sells its male skincare products in plastic tubes made from sugar cane. Last year, Danish toymaker Lego started including botanical pieces, like leaves, bushes and trees, made entirely of plant-based plastics in its box sets.
Origin Materials developed a way to extract cellulose from wood waste to make para-xylene, a hydrocarbon usually derived from oil used to manufacture PET, one of the most common plastics today. Since trees and plants naturally capture CO2 through photosynthesis, using sustainably sourced sawdust and wood chips more than offsets any pollutants released in the manufacturing process, according to Bissell.
However ingenious the techniques to make plant-based bottles may get, though, they’re still plastic. Not all varieties are recyclable or biodegradable. And ultimately unless they are recycled — and worldwide only one out of every five bottles is — plastic bottles inevitably end up in landfills where they may spew pollutants into the air, or worse, find their way into the oceans where most could take hundreds of years to degrade, killing birds, fish and whales in the process. When incinerating, bio-based plastics may be little better than oil-based ones because the carbon stored in them is released.