Making plastic disappear

It comes as no surprise, that single-use plastic remains one of the most pressing environmental issues of our times.

The production of disposable plastic products has rapidly increased to overwhelming levels, with global production of plastic waste now twice as high as it was two decades ago. If these trends continue, by 2050 we’ll have produced 26 billion metric tons of plastic waste.

While innovations in plastic recycling are ongoing, according to the OECD, the bulk of plastic waste ends up in landfill, incinerated or leaking into the environment, while only 9% is successfully recycled.

As a result, about 8 million tons of plastic waste escapes into the oceans from coastal nations every year, where it can be broken down into microplastics. As marine life consumes these small particles, this has multiple consequences for both sea life and the subsequent food-chain. In response to these growing concerns, the European commission have announced a new initiative with the aim to address the unintentional release of microplastics in the environment.

While it is clear we must adopt better recycling habits, this is no longer enough. Undeniably, plastics are versatile and useful materials that are essential to the economy, but we must begin to rethink our relationship with them in our everyday lives. There is a great need to change the way plastics interact with our environment and to develop effective plastic alternatives. These are some of the challenges that lie at the heart of the new Circular Economy Action Plan, one of the main building blocks of the European Green Deal.

In order to make this transition, innovation and regulation are required on an international scale. An EPO study from 2021 showed that Europe and the US are leading innovation in plastic recycling and alternative plastic technologies. In addition, the report found that in the chemical and biological recycling fields, fundamental research plays a much more significant role than in other plastic recycling technologies, with nearly 20% of inventions originating from universities and public research organisations. Among them, are a series of start-ups aiming to tackle these problems with creative solutions.

Plastic Alternatives

Alternative plastics cover bioplastic materials and plastics which are biodegradable or compostable. As recent EU legislation bans various items made from single-use plastic such as cups, straws and cotton bud sticks, bioplastics may provide a promising alternative for the market.

Bioplastics are typically made from plants, starches, and sugars. As UK start-up Notpla have demonstrated, this can also include seaweed or more specifically “Ooho”, a patented edible and biodegradable packaging derived from seaweed that degrades within only 4-6 weeks. Notpla have made more than a million takeaway food boxes for delivery platform JustEat and have recently collaborated with Heinz to provide an alternative to single-use plastic sauce sachets in the aim of reducing single-use plastic in the food-serving industry, one of the largest contributors to plastic waste. For their innovative contributions, Notpla recently received the 2022 Earthshot Prize in the category of ‘Build a Waste-Free World’.

Cambridge-based Xampla, are another start-up aiming to tackle the use of single-use plastic in a wide variety of applications, including wrapper films and microcapsules for vitamin encapsulation. Their patented technology is said to be the world’s first replacement for plastic made from plant protein. As the proteins are chemically unaltered, this allows microorganisms in the environment to easily digest them.

How to make plastic disappear 

Although diligence in recycling and correct waste disposal is crucial, perhaps a failsafe is for plastics to simply vanish after use.

Polymateria, a British start-up based in Imperial’s White City Campus, have developed a “biotransformation” technology which aims to tackle “fugitive” plastics. These include packaging, cups and plastics bags that often end up in oceans and landfills, rather than being recycled.

Most biodegradable and compostable plastics require industrial facilities in order to break down, often leaving behind harmful microplastics in the process. To overcome this, Polymateria have developed additives that alter the composition of plastic polymers and destroy their hard crystal structure. This allows them to break down into a wax, regardless of whether the polymer has been recycled or not. The wax is fully digestible by bacteria and fungi found in nature.

The result is plastic which the inventors claim can decompose as fast as 226 days for polyethylene-based products and 336 days for polypropylene ones, leaving behind no microplastics. Products are marked with a “recycle by” date to indicate to consumers the timeframe in which they should recycle them before the products essentially begin to self-destruct. With two patents already under their belt and another two applications underway, this novel biotransformation technology may prove an effective tool in reducing plastic waste.


Start-ups play a growing role in supporting the reduction of plastic waste. It is promising to see innovation in both recycling, and plastic alternatives which eliminate the usage of plastics altogether. It will be interesting to see how these developments impact the transition towards a more circular economy in the coming years.