At a time when many of us are examining our carbon footprint, it may alarm you to discover that Richard Paterson is talking about something many Australians consume habitually – the humble bottle of water.
Mr Paterson is managing director of Cool Change, a bottled water company with a difference. It uses PLA plastic for its bottles, made from plant resin, as opposed to normal PET bottles which are made from crude oil. Producing PLA bottles uses 90 per cent less carbon than a PET bottle, but there’s a sting – PLA is $2.35 a kilogram, while PET varies from $1.50 to $2.20, depending on the price of oil.
The vast majority of plastics are made from oil, or other petrochemicals, and as a result they take an estimated 450 years to decompose. PLA bottles, under commercial composting conditions, break down in just 80 days. The question, as it so often is of late, is what is the cost to the environment?
Time for change
Plastic was the saviour of a post-WWII world starved of other materials, but is now resented for its omnipresence – forced into our hands at late-night pubs; left on the ground after countless sporting events and dutifully supporting the meals we eat at 10,000 feet. The end destination, in most cases, is landfill.
It’s an unsustainable practice; a convenience hangover from which the world is starting to groggily emerge.
Technology the cure
According to the CSIRO’s Dr Long Yu, who has been testing and developing biodegradable plastics for several years, the cure lies in technology.
“Biodegradable plastics are still in development – PLA is still too expensive, while starch-based materials are too moisture sensitive,’‘ Dr Yu said.
“But as technology improves, polymers made from renewable resources will be the answer to the growing plastic headache.”
`Too expensive’ and `not durable enough’ – these are the catch-cries of the plastic old-guard, keen to ward off intrusions into their market share.
Pat Primmer, a committee member of Plastics Industry Manufacturer of Australia (PIMA), is one such traditionalist.
“Biodegradable plastics in general are a bit of a red herring. They tend to be more expensive, they don’t work as well, and normal plastic will biodegrade when exposed to sunlight anyway.”
This last claim is a spurious one at best, and unsupported by any published research.
The label of too expensive is disputed by Matthew Perrier, sales and marketing manager for Plantic, a company that produces plastic made from 90 per cent cornstarch.
“The plastic we produce is slightly more expensive than PET plastic, but you have to consider the disposal costs,” he said.
“For example, we produce thousands of mosquito traps for the Queensland Government, and where previously they had to set them and then re-collect them, they now break-down naturally in twelve weeks, saving them 90 per cent of their costs.”
Mr Perrier is used to hearing claims about biodegradable plastic being too expensive and unreliable, and said it was a matter of educating consumers.
“Our plastic is perfect for its use – it’s made to break down when exposed to air and water,” he said.
“PLA plastic can be used for circumstances where plastic needs to be water resistant.
“It’s about thinking of them as a whole suite of products, not isolating one and saying ‘it dissolves in water, we can’t trust any of them’.”
Bundanoon residents have gone one step further. The small town in the southern highlands of NSW made world headlines by banning the sale of plastic water bottles, with residents now able to buy reusable water bottles from retailers and fill them up at filtered-water fountains around the town.
The decision was overwhelming – 355 votes to 1 – and has drawn praise from Do Something Bottled Water Alliance chairman John Dee. But while Mr Dee supports the ban, he said he agreed the future was in biodegradable plastic.
“In the short-term we need to maximise recycling of PET plastic and if we have a lot of biodegradable plastic being mixed with that, it will be contaminated,” he said.
“What we need is for biodegradable plastic to be implemented en masse, to ensure there is a proper take-up of biopolymers.”
It’s the sort of action that can only come from government, but Mr Dee is scathing of their response thus far.
“The Government has been extremely inept … incredibly it’s actually the major companies that are taking the environmental lead, who are having to start the revolution without the Government’s help,” he said.
Greens Victoria MP Colleen Hartland is equally frustrated with the Brumby Government, saying they have dragged their feet on Container Deposit Legislation (CDL) – a bill that proposed a ten cent deposit on drink containers to allow for additional recycling depots for the likes of PLA water bottles.
Environment minister Gavin Jennings says the CDL proposal would be an unnecessary expense that would not be as effective as other government initiatives, such as recycling in the workplace.
Political point-scoring aside, it seems it is the corporate world, rather than the government, that is embracing the new breed of plastic. While CSIRO, the pre-eminent government scientific body, is claiming cornstarch-based plastic is “too moisture-sensitive”, Plantic is already using it successfully in a range of products.
Cool Change’s fate, for all of Mr Paterson’s enthusiasm, is stymied by the government’s reluctance to overhaul its recycling. Mr Paterson is no tree-hugger, and his pin-striped suit suggests daily showers. Simply, he believes technology is the answer.
“I certainly wouldn’t call myself a greenie – I used to have a sticker on the back of my ute that said ‘greens cost jobs’ – but being a farmer, the whole concept of making plastic out of renewable resources made so much sense,” he said.
But no matter how logical it might seem, in a market-driven economy the cheapest always wins, no matter the environmental cost.
The Carbon Trading Scheme has the potential to turn this market on its head, so all might not be lost for pioneers such as Mr Paterson. The technology is, or will soon be, there to solve what could be called the plastic problem.
In the not too distant future, when the price is right, plastic could once again be fantastic.