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Sawdust Might Be One Answer to the World’s Plastic Problem
Origin Materials, a tech startup in Sarnia, Ontario is turning sawdust from lumber scraps into recyclable bottles which beverage giants Pepsi, Danone and Nestle plan to use for water bottles.
By: Aine Quinn
A technology startup near Ontario’s leafy border with Michigan says it has the answer to the world’s plastic pollution problem: sawdust.
Origin Materials is getting ready to pay sawmills in the area $20 a ton for the scraps left over in the process of turning logs into lumber, which it will use to make recyclable plastic bottles that remove carbon-dioxide from the sky because they’re made from sustainably sourced wood waste. Nestle SA, Danone SA and PepsiCo Inc. plan to sell water in Origin’s recyclable plant-based bottles in early 2022.
It’s one of the many unconventional ways conceived by scientists to reduce the world’s reliance on plastics made from petroleum, which emit as much climate-damaging pollutants as 189 coal plants each year from production to incineration. Other so-called bio-based plastics are being developed from sugar, corn, algae, seaweed, sewage and even dead beetles.
“Consumers are caring about plastic in a way that they haven’t in a long time, maybe ever,” said John Bissell, 34, who founded Origin Materials in 2008 and has spent 10 years working as an engineer developing alternative plastics that don’t contribute to climate change. “Everyday things like bottles and clothing can now become carbon negative, but remain otherwise functionally identical.”
That may be true in theory, but phasing out petroleum-based plastics will be an uphill battle. Use of the material has become so ingrained for societies around the world that about half of all new oil demand through 2040 will come from petrochemicals, an industry that relies on plastics for most of its business, according to BloombergNEF. The $500 billion global plastics market is responsible for 5% of greenhouse gas emissions, Friends of the Earth data show. Some projections see that ratio tripling in the next 30 years.
Plant-based plastics, especially varieties made from sugar cane, are starting to seep into the mainstream as companies try to respond to consumers who are increasingly angry about the ecologically devastating impact of plastics. London-based Bulldog sells its male skincare products in plastic tubes made from sugar cane. Last year, Danish toymaker Lego A/S started including botanical pieces, like leaves, bushes and trees, made entirely of plant-based plastics in its box sets.
It’ll take getting big food and beverage companies on board to really alter the equation. Nestle alone produces 1.7 million tons of plastic packaging a year, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, enough to make over 51 billion bottles. Beverage makers like Coca-Cola Co. and Pepsi use a lot more than that. Coca-Cola rolled out its so-called plantbottle in 2009, but it’s still 70% petroleum based.
“There is no doubt that awareness around plastic waste has become more prominent in the last two years,” said Simon Lowden, president of PepsiCo’s global snacks group, which announced in 2016 it would seek to reduce absolute greenhouse gas emissions by 20% by 2030.