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10 fantastic innovations in the war on plastic - updated

Beach covered in plastic bottles

The response to an urgent global call to reduce plastic waste has been considerable. To look at just a  few things that have happened only in the last few weeks, Sainsbury’s has announced the introduction of refillable packaging, while plastic recycling has been incentivised in the Philippines by offering an exchange for rice and waste itself cited as a possible material for the manufacture of kayaks.  

The problem is nowhere near resolved yet but there are plenty of alternatives to throw-away plastics, as well as other plastic-recycling breakthroughs that may make an impact. Here, we check up on some of the innovations we’ve previously covered to see what progress has been made towards the mainstream.

Edible cutlery

The easiest way to minimise waste from picnicking and kids' parties is surely to eat the tools you've just, er, eaten with. Made from millet, rice and wheat, the dining innovation from an Indian inventor offers exactly this, and a number of different flavours are on offer. 

**Update 2019** This is an idea that has taken off significantly in recent years. There are now a number of companies offering edible alternatives to plastic knives, forks and spoons, including Edible Pro and Candy Cutlery – which do very much what it says on the tin.

Edible packaging

In what's becoming a bit of a theme, a US agriculture research team has created a packaging material made of milk proteins, which as well as offering you the opportunity to stuff it in your mouth, it also is said to preserve food better than plastic. There are drawbacks though – it'll be more expensive than plastic, plus involving cows – and their associated methane production – in packaging may not be a more sustainable option. Watch this space. 

**Update 2019** The concept of using milk protein alternatives to plastic has been moved forward thanks to the work a French SME called Lactips. Its’ focus has been creating a renewable, biodegradable packaging option that is non-toxic when dissolved in water. Less focused on the eating of packaging, admittedly, but highly useful in the world of dishwasher tablets. Bioplastic’s European market share is only 1% at the moment, so there’s a long way to go, but this one’s creeping towards mainstream adoption.

Plastic-eating mushrooms

Still on the subject of eating, a group of fungi have been found to gorge on plastic. One type of mushroom can exist on an all-plastic diet, in fact. Is this the solution to plastic waste, and potential problems from a contaminated food chain? If it can be scaled up to a sufficient degree, there is huge potential here. 

**Update 2019** Big news on this one. At least 50 new types of plastic-biodegrading fungus have been discovered since 2017, but more investment is needed to scale up operations, and work out the best way of applying fungi in the plastic-tackling process.

Bacteria get stuck in, too

Two young scientists are in the process of commercialising their concept, bacteria which breaks down plastic quicker than methods currently on offer. It may take a few years before this innovation enters the waste recycling process, but again, it seems like nature might have the answer to human error. 

**Update 2019** It’s not just 22 year-olds on the case with this one. Scientists are becoming increasingly optimistic that microorganisms are going to play an active role in breaking down our plastics and converting them into their useful – and profitable – chemical components.

Waste plastic homes

A social enterprise called Conceptos Plasticos has come up with a way of creating stackable bricks from waste plastic and rubber, to create quickly-built, durable and – most importantly – extremely affordable housing for those who need it most. 

**Update 2019** This idea has spread its wings well beyond its origins in Colombia. A Conceptos Plasticos project in Abidjan, Ivory Coast was recently featured in The New York Times. It takes the plastic collected by women in the city, paying them a higher rate than they would normally receive, and uses it to create the bricks to build homes and schools.

Waste plastic roads

This is a brand new story for 2019: the novel idea of using non-recyclable plastic to create roads on housing developments. Scotland led the way in the UK, Bristol has followed (albeit using the same Scottish innovator, MacRebur), and there seems to be a general clamour for a lot more waste plastic in road building. Whether its plastic bags or bottles going into the surface, this seems to be a highly practical way of contributing to a growing ‘circular economy’.

A new kind of fuel

Converting waste plastics to fuels like petrol, kerosene and diesel has been the aim of the game for Australian PhD student Songpol Boonsawat – and it's brought a breakthrough. Emissions, of course, would still be a problem in the end though – but they are said to be lower than existing fuels, while 'closing the loop' in the plastic life cycle. It's said the process, if taken up widely, could potential reduce plastics going to landfill by 80%. 

**Update 2019** There’s not much to report on this particular research, but plastic waste-fuel has remained a hot area of study – with promising results. One such example is a new technique established to turn polypropylene plastic waste into useful products such as fuel using water raised to a temperature and pressure above its critical point.

No-energy air conditioning

Plastic bottles and air conditioning systems don't seem the most natural connection, but a very simple invention, using just bottles and a perforated board, may prove to the answer to lowering the temperature of scores of households off the electricity grid. The Eco Cooler concept, currently being used in Bangladesh, creates a natural cooling effect by warm air entering the large opening of the bottle and leaving through the thinner neck. 

**Update 2019** This being such a simple concept, not a lot’s changed in the last few years. It’s still a good idea which could be adapted pretty much anywhere there are plastic bottles and something to mount them in.

Stop plastic clogging the oceans – in your washing machine

One way to stop plastic harming ecosystems is to stop it getting there at the first possible opportunity. Synthetic clothing materials shed lots of plastic microfibres when washed, and they often end up in waterways. However, a new microfibre catcher, modelled on sea anemones, has been invented to catch the rogue plastic in your machine. From there, it goes back to the manufacturer where it's dealt with. It's out next year in the States, so in the meantime, washing synthetics sparingly and looking out for natural materials is advised. 

**Update 2019** Public interest can certainly be considered piqued by this one. A Kickstarter set up to get the product to market raised $353,461 – a fair bit more than the $10,000 target.

Printing with waste plastic

The main problem with 3D printing is it uses a lot of plastic. But it also poses a potential use for waste plastic, and Greek project The New Raw is among a wave of innovators making plastic bottles, cups and more into useful printing filament. More than that, though, it is raising awareness of plastic recycling on the island of Syros with initiatives like creating pet houses for stray cats and stools which compress waste plastic. 

**Update 2019** Given the profile of the fight against plastic waste, very few innovative projects stagnate, and this one is no different. The New Raw has now opened a zero waste lab in Thessaloniki, where the public are invited to bring in their household waste plastic and use it to transform public space by creating their own street furniture.  

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Gary Hartley's picture
Gary Hartley is Energy Saving Trust's expert blogger. He has extensive experience researching and writing on a number of topics, with particular expertise in sustainable energy, policy, literature and sport. As well as providing regular blog content, Gary has also been published in numerous magazines and journals.

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Thank you for posting, good to see positive steps being taken to clean up this planet.