#SystemReset – Part 2: Plastics from Air

As we come to the close of the hottest year on modern record for the planet, the potential for a #SystemReset  that results in carbon sequestration is a welcome one. In this post, I provide an example of how an alternative biomimetic systems approach to sourcing and producing plastic that actually sequesters carbon can redefine the environmental impacts of the plastics industry while still delivering high-quality plastics that meet core functional needs.

As I mentioned in Part 1 of my #SystemReset series, using a biomimicry systems approach (including the innovation methodology and Life’s Principles) to rethink the approach to solving for the core function of a product allows innovators to quickly find existing working whole-system solutions as starting points to create viable alternative human product category system solutions. These alternatives introduce radical disruption at a systems level – both affecting the product category ecosystem but also redefining (for the better) the environmental, social and economic impact of that product category – while still delivering a viable solution that addresses the core functions of the product category.

How would nature produce plastic?

Plastics are generally made from fossil fuels through an energy intensive process that results in the release of large quantities of greenhouse gases, contributing to global climate change. But a new paradigm is emerging that has the potential to radically change the plastics industry – plastic made from “air pollution” inspired by the fact that plants are sequestering carbon by turning greenhouse gases captured from the air into polymers every day.

Plants produce polymers by first converting the sun’s light energy into chemical energy through photosynthesis, a process in which carbon dioxide (an abundant greenhouse gas) pulled from the air is combined with water to make sugars (oxygen is a byproduct of this process). Glucose (a sugar) is then connected in long chains via an enzymatic process in proteins to produce polymers such as cellulose for structure and starch for stored energy. Cellulose and starch are of course biodegradable materials that at the end of the plant’s life are returned back into the nutrient cycle.

So startup plastics companies asked, if plants are sequestering carbon from greenhouse gases from the air into biodegradable polymers, why can’t we humans? Turns out we can.

Let’s break this down. Why is the plastics industry dominated by fossil fuel-based materials? Why does it matter? What are the alternatives and how is this radical biomimetic approach different? What are the potential impacts?

The Dominant Design in Conventional Plastics

Many different forms of plastic made from plant or animal materials existed before a synthetic plastic derived from fossil fuels was invented in 1907. The abundance and low cost of fossil fuel-based feedstocks for plastics and additives allowed for an explosion in plastics production used for an incredible variety of applications, particularly for products developed for armed forces in World War II, followed by plastics made for consumer goods after 1945. Synthetic plastics made by petrochemical companies dominate the plastics industry today.

Petroleum-based plastics use both materials derived from the refinement of crude oil as well as natural gas. It is estimated that anywhere from 1 to 6 kilograms (kg) carbon dioxide (CO2) per kg of plastic is emitted during the production of fossil fuel-based plastics.* Approximately 299 million tons of plastics were produced in 2013, accounting for approximately 4 percent fossil fuel-based energy production and 4 percent of petroleum consumed globally each year. These greenhouse gas emissions contribute to the climate change we are seeing today (literally today, it’s way too warm so far this November in Chicago).

At the end of the material’s useful life, fossil fuel-based plastics are sometimes recycled, but unfortunately more often than not are thrown away. As these plastics degrade, the plastic will breakdown eventually into tiny microparticles and toxic additives in the plastics, such as bisphenol A (BPA) (an endocrine disruptor), are released. However, because these microparticles are synthetic plastic, they are not broken down any further by microorganisms and thus do not reenter the natural carbon cycle.

*A Google search resulted in a wide range of estimates.

Why does it matter?

Carbon dioxide and methane are essential carbon-based greenhouse gases that are part of the natural carbon cycle on the planet. The carbon cycle helps to regulate our planet’s systems in a way that sustains life (including us humans!). As native ecosystems are replaced or modified by human development, including both agricultural and built environment systems which do not cycle carbon in the same way as the native ecosystems they replace, we begin to disrupt the ability of those native ecosystems to continue to cycle carbon in the same way and in the same quantities.

Carbon-cycle
Source: Wikipedia

In addition, as we disturb carbon sinks (forms of carbon that are otherwise not released back into the carbon cycle) by burning fossil fuels, cutting down and burning forests and tilling soils for agricultural purposes, we are releasing vast quantities of carbon dioxide and methane back into the atmosphere that would otherwise stay in the ground and biomass (exceeding natural fluctuations). With the decreasing ability of ecosystems to absorb and store carbon and increasing quantities of greenhouse gases released from human activities into the air, combined with insufficient carbon sequestration by humans to balance the amount released by human activities, the carbon cycle is shifting as more carbon accumulates in the atmosphere and oceans.

As the quantity of greenhouse gases increases in the Earth’s atmosphere, the gases increasingly prevent heat from the sun’s rays from escaping our atmosphere. Some trapping of heat is necessary of course or we would all be frozen to death. Increasing heat, however, changes weather patterns on a global scale, resulting in increasing flooding and drought, extreme heat and cold, intensity of storms, melting glaciers and rising sea levels, and ocean acidification. This change in weather patterns can result in increased human suffering in any place where these natural disasters occur – not in isolated areas, and not confined to third-world countries (have you seen Miami at high tide?). It also increasingly threatens biodiversity on our planet as many organisms cannot adapt quickly enough to the change in weather patterns which impacts everything from water availability to timing and availability of food supplies on land, and warming temperatures and increasing acidification in oceans. The planet’s systems are increasingly out of whack, and the use of fossil-fuel based materials and energy systems contributes to this disruption.

Petroleum-based plastic waste is also increasingly found throughout the world and represents an ever-increasing crisis on a planetary scale. Approximately 10-20 million tons of plastic end up in the ocean every year, and plastics are showing up throughout our food chain at the micro-scale as plastics break down into tiny pieces but are not able to be broken down further by microorganisms because they are not biodegradable. Research on the health effects on both humans and other animals of increasing amounts of microplastics in our food chains and ecosystems is ongoing.

 The Search for  Alternatives

Realizing that the dominant design for plastics that has emerged in modern times relies on cheap fossil fuel-based feedstocks that have significant environmental and human health impacts, companies have been working to figure out more environmentally friendly and scalable feedstock alternatives that can compete on price. Most of these alternatives are bioplastics, which are derived from plant or animal based materials. By changing the feedstock to plant or animal based material, the resulting bioplastics biodegrade at the end of their lifecycle resulting in less harm to the environment at the end of life of the product. The bioplastics industry thus has the potential to significantly shift the raw material sourcing as well as impact of the disposal portions of the product category ecosystem.

However, the life-cycle petroleum inputs that are consumed in the agricultural production and energy consumption necessary to produce the plant-based materials can be close to those required for fossil fuel-based plastics. Other environmental impacts also emerge from plant-based plastics, including the potential to accelerate the rate of deforestation and soil erosion as a result of the increasing demand for agricultural land. In addition, bioplastics also face the challenge of having high costs with low yields relative to petroleum-based plastics. Thus, the resulting consensus on bioplastics is that while they generally have a lower environmental impact than fossil fuel-based plastics, the jury is still out.

The “Plastics from Air Pollution” Solution

A different emerging alternative to this dominant design, however, seeks to capture feedstocks from the air, just as plants do. By looking at the life cycle of carbon in plants, innovators were able to see an entire alternative system of carbon cycling and try to mimic aspects of it – raw material sourcing (the air), production (enzymatic process) and disposal (breakdown and recycling back into the carbon cycle to be used again).

Modeling their raw material sourcing and production and eventual disposal of polymers on the natural carbon production and degradation cycle in plants,  Newlight Technologies is commercially producing AirCarbon, a group of biodegradable polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) thermoplastics that combines a biocatalyst with methane captured from biodegradation processes (before it is released into the atmosphere) and oxygen from the air to produce polymers, all done at a competitive price. Novomer is another company using carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide gases to make polymers.

The Newlight and Novomer plastics processes are literally capturing carbon “pollution” (aka, an abundant resource that happens to be a greenhouse gas too) that would otherwise contribute to climate change and sequestering it in plastic products. In the case of Newlight, the feedstock is actually derived from the byproduct (methane) of microbes that break down organic materials in wastewater treatment plants, anaerobic digesters, landfills and farming operations. And just like the polymers produced by plants, these plastics will eventually break down into natural elements that are digestible by microorganisms and incorporated back into the organic life cycle.

So instead of digging carbon out of the ground and releasing it into the air, these companies are actually taking carbon out of the air and sequestering it into a solid material. According to the Newlight Technologies website, a cradle-to-grave analysis of the Aircarbon material concluded Aircarbon is carbon negative. The potential of this plastic to not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions relative to fossil fuel-based plastics, but to actually sequester carbon out of the air (thus helping to reduce the severity of climate change) represents nothing less than a paradigm shift in the plastics industry, and companies are taking notice.

Impact on the Plastics Product Category Ecosystem

Changing the raw material sources from fossil fuels to “air pollution” has the potential to change the entire raw material chain for the industry as well as reduce its impact at the end of life of the material.

product-category-ecosystem-newlight

Most significantly, in the case of Newlight, the source of feedstock for their polymers is from two sources – the air outside combined with methane from farming operations, wastewater treatment plants and/or anaerobic digesters (anywhere where microorganisms are digesting organic matter and producing methane). This shift eliminates both direct and indirect suppliers of fossil fuel-based raw materials from the product category ecosystem. Those impacted include companies such as crude oil and natural gas extraction companies and the subcontractors that serve them; oil and natural gas distribution/transportation companies; oil and natural gas storage companies; refineries; and petrochemical plants.

The value associated with this portion of the product category ecosystem of course is then redirected to the alternative raw material sources – methane pollution capture companies (i.e., farmers, municipal wastewater treatment plants or anaerobic digester energy plant operators). As such, value is not being lost within the ecosystem, but rather redirected to new players along with increased value placed on a resource that was previously considered a “waste.” And the resulting value to the planet as a result of greenhouse gases sequestered in air pollution plastic at a time when we have no time to lose to address climate change is invaluable.

Other improvements might be made to address other challenges throughout the industry, such as using renewable energy to power production plants, and using life-friendly additives to the plastics that ensure recyclability and/or complete biodegradation of all materials in the plastic end products.

These new models for plastics production change the underlying dominant design assumption that to be scalable at a competitive cost in today’s market, plastics must be made from fossil fuel feedstocks. So what if we could shift the “plastics from petroleum” paradigm to the “plastics from carbon pollution” paradigm at a large scale? I’d love to have the resources to do the math! I think we’d find the resulting paradigm shift would have huge ripple effects throughout the industry.

I would also argue that this kind of thinking is the beginning of a fundamental shift in the way we view carbon “pollution.” This example begs the question, how else can we sequester abundant carbon resources (combined with reduction efforts) to begin to balance our carbon cycle? Plants figured this out a long time ago. We are just getting started.

Newlight’s innovation and it’s potential for redefining the plastics industry’s love affair with fossil fuels is no longer a question of “if”, but rather “how soon?” Talk about a #SystemReset.

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