At CSTI we are working on bioplastics, water purification, biofuels and safer chemicals. We are not making products such as food packaging. Our role is to research and demonstrate the bioplastic material can be used for food packaging and that the biodegradable plastic has improved environmental qualities.
The challenge in developing bioplastics is less about the science. Chemical research is part formulaic, part artistic (intuition) and part standardization (regulatory mandates and industry specifications). The challenge in developing bioplastics is the need to shape the ecosystem.
One of the reasons bio-economy conversion has been slow globally is that bio-economy conversion is not a plug and play switch from an old way to a new way. Example (for those old enough to remember): the conversion from using a desktop computer to a portable laptop computer, OR, converting from WhatsApp chat to Facebook chat and vice-versa. These are simple conversions in which the boundaries and functionality of the new technology are pre-defined. All that is needed is for the user to change behaviour by changing platforms.
The goal of bioplastic conversion is different. The goal of bioplastic conversion is to solve the problem of plastic pollution. The goal of bioplastic conversion is to solve the problem of plastic pollution. The problem can be approached from multiple solution entry points:
Avoid landfill accumulation
Avoid water systems accumulation
Avoid toxic chemicals
Avoid manufacturing machinery conversion
Avoid increasing costs for the consumer
Avoid single use
These are the basic seven principles of a good solution to plastic pollution. It is important to use the systems theory lens so that we factor bioaccumulation into our solution requirements.
Let us examine biodegradable bioplastic fertiliser bags. These is a solution that uses entry points #6 and #3. Now, instead of thinking about ONE biodegradable bioplastic fertiliser bag, let us use the stastic of consumption from before Kenya's ban on single use plastic bags. In Kenya, just supermarkets (not counting hardware shops, biashara shops, clothing shops, bookshops, etc) were consuming 100 million single use plastic bags EVERY year.
Think of 100 million used plastic bags stacked neatly one on top of the other, or, laid out neatly one next to the other. They biodegrade into fertiliser. Does the specific location in which the bags are stacked or laid out need that much fertiliser every year?
As you can see, in order for the plastic pollution problem to be solved we either have to lower the rate of consumption or change the end of use (aka end of life) distribution for plastic bags.
If the biodegradable plastic is designed for re-use as a cement aggregate, the end of life disposal and distribution system needs to connect consumer waste to the construction industry. If the biodegradable plastic is designed for re-use as a fertiliser, the end of life disposal and distribution system needs to connect consumer waste to the agricultural industry.
The behavioural changes needed are not just a plug and play substitution of existing plastic with biodegradable plastic. The behavioural changes needed are a complete shift in how we use plastic. We need to shift from focusing the classification of plastic by type (e.g. PET, PHA, ABS, PVC, PE, etc) towards a classification that is geared towards the end of use (e.g. biodegradation, material composite, biofuel, re-manufacturing). Focusing on end of use will align the waste disposal collection systems with the appropriate industry raw material acquisition systems. The industry raw material specifications will drive the chemical properties and functionality of the new bioplastic formulations.
At CSTI and similar research institutions, we can change the chemical characteristics of plastics but we cannot change the operational characteristics of industry. Industry must take the lead in defining the anticipated functionality and product specifications of bioplastics. In the same spirit of it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to raise the industry standards towards #BiologicalSafety and #BiologicalLuxury.
Here is a tool to get you started.
Here are more details on how to think about the technical implementation of the tool.
Change is driven by leaders. As a country, Kenya has taken a global lead with a country-wide ban on single use plastics. Kenyan universities are taking the lead with advanced materials research on bioplastics.
Will your industry take the lead by defining #BiologicalSafety and #BiologicalLuxury for Kenyan circular economy end of use product and material bioplastic specification requirements?