Ask the expert: Don't call it plastic - it's traceless!
What do a water bottle, electrical equipment case and cigarette butts have in common? They are all (partially) made from plastic - which perfectly shows that plastic is everywhere, and that it comes in many different forms and sizes.
We’ve been talking a lot about how our materials are different from plastic during our last campaign ‘’Don’t call it plastic, it's traceless’’. But do you ever wonder what plastic actually is, how it has gotten so popular, and why our materials are different but look so alike? Let's ask the expert!
Holding a PhD in chemistry, our Head of R&D Alessandro is our expert when it comes to organic and polymer chemistry - so, the science behind plastics. Alessandro provided us with the essential information to answer these complex, but interesting questions. So, let’s take a step back and start at the beginning…
What actually are plastics, Alessandro?
Plastics are a group of synthetic (or semi-synthetic) materials which are easy to convert into solid objects of different shapes. This can be done through various processing techniques, for example by extrusion, compression moulding and injection moulding. On a chemical level, plastics are made from a wide range of synthetic polymers. This is also why we often use the term polymer material to describe plastics.
You can probably already guess our next question, but what are polymers?
The term "polymer" derives from the Greek word "polys" (meaning "many, much") and "meros", (meaning "part"). Polymers consist of many identical small molecules that are strung together like a chain. We call these individual small molecules monomers, and they are linked to each other by covalent bonds. These chain molecules are synthetically created in a chemical process called polymerization. Synthetic polymers, like present in plastics, are man-made, normally using fossil-fuel based chemicals as a raw material. Some synthetic polymers you have probably heard of are polyethylene (PE, used for plastic bags, bottles) and polypropylene (PP, used for plastic chairs, bottle caps).
Over the last decades plastic has gotten immensely popular, from 2 million tons being produced in 1950, to 368 millions tons in 2019, and studies show that this number is expected to double by 2040. Its low weight, durability, and good protective properties make it an all-round talent for many applications. However, plastic unfortunately also has its downsides. Not only are conventional plastics based on fossil fuels, also the energy demanding production process highly contributes to carbon emissions - hereby conventional plastics contribute to climate change.
Besides this, plastics also decompose very slowly in the environment, due to their chemical structure, thereby contributing to the well-known problem of plastic pollution. To highlight the size of this problem - it is estimated that the amount of plastics in our oceans is about 150 million metric tons!
Shocking numbers right… But Alessandro, what exactly is the reason for conventional plastics to decompose so slowly in the environment?
Biodegradation is a natural process - naturally occurring microbes break up molecules and decompose them. The problem with conventional plastics: The chain molecules of plastics are created in a synthetical process, and held together by strong bonds - the so-called "carbon-carbon bonds''. This material cannot be found in nature and for this reason, the organisms responsible for breaking organic matter down have never seen such an ‘’unnatural’’ material and are therefore not capable of breaking its chemical bonds down to decompose it.
The natural alternative
The idea behind traceless is to do this differently, because besides the synthetic polymers as described above, nature actually also has its own polymers, so-called natural polymers.
What are natural polymers? Are they different from the polymers you just described?
These are polymers produced by living organisms - plants or animals. They occur in nature and can be extracted from natural resources, examples are cellulose, hemicellulose, proteins or starch. traceless materials are a new generation of materials that are based on these natural polymers. We extract these natural polymers from plant resources - specifically, from by-products of the agricultural industry.
Now that we know the chemical details, can you sum up the difference between traceless and conventional plastics at a glance?
traceless materials are bio-based rather than fossil-based, and use a very efficient technology. So hereby they contribute significantly less to climate change. And unlike conventional plastics, traceless is constituted by natural polymers, which nature has already engineered to quickly biodegrade. In other words: they are compostable under natural composting conditions. This in turn means that our materials do not contribute to plastic and microplastic pollution. However, not everything is different as our materials still have some of the beneficial properties of plastic!
Thanks for clearing that up! What does all this mean for the regulatory side of things? Aren’t there a lot of laws (coming) into place targeting single-use plastics and bioplastics?
Yes, there are indeed a lot of laws into place, or coming into place in the near future. The most well-known one is probably the EU Single-Use Plastics Directive. However, since traceless materials are based on natural polymers which are neither chemically modified nor synthetically polymerized, they do not fall under such directives! This is definitely something that sets us apart from conventional plastics and bioplastics, and it once more highlights that our materials are different from them.
So, to put it very simple, the reason our materials look and function like conventional plastics, is because they are also based on polymers, just the ones nature already designed for us?
We hope this gave you the background information needed to understand the difference between conventional plastics and traceless materials. Next up in line are bioplastics. What are they? How does traceless differ from them? Keep an eye on our social media channels to find out all about it! And we hope that from now on you remember… to not call it plastic, it’s traceless...