7 innovations in honour of #plasticfreejuly
One of the easiest ways to help the environment is to focus on what kinds of plastic we use, how we use them, and what we do to clean up the plastic already polluting the earth. Plastic Free July is a global movement that encourages people to refuse to use single-use plastic, helping them to become part of the solution.
Plastic waste innovations are among the most popular covered by Springwise. In honour of #plasticfreejuly, we have curated 7 of our best.
1. TURNING PLASTIC FROM OLD VEHICLES INTO GRAPHENE
Graphene has long been considered something of a wonder material. Made of a single layer of carbon atoms arranged in a honeycomb-like lattice structure, the material has been used for a range of applications such as paints, sensors, electronics, and solar panels. Now, a partnership between Rice University researchers and the Ford Motor Company, has added car parts to the growing list of graphene’s uses. And the real kicker? The graphene for the parts can be made from difficult-to-recycle plastics found in old vehicles.
Mixed plastic is a headache for the auto industry as cars contain a complex combination of plastic resin, filler, and reinforcements that must be separated before they can be recycled – a process that is difficult if not impossible.
For the Rice-Ford research team, a process called Flash Joule Heating is the solution to this problem. In this process, mixed plastic is blasted with a high-voltage current that vapourises the other elements in the plastic leaving behind graphene. The graphene can then be used to reinforce new car parts.
2. COMPUTER MOUSE RECYCLING PROGRAMME REDUCES OCEAN WASTE
Microsoft’s wireless Ocean Plastic Mouse contains 20 per cent recycled plastic and comes in 100 per cent recycled packaging. The case of the device is made from plastic removed from waterways. After processing and cleaning, this waste is turned into plastic pellets for use in the final product.
The new packaging replaces previous single-use plastic versions with fully recyclable paper pulp, the latter deriving from sugarcane fibres and recyclable wood. And for users wanting to responsibly replace their current mouse with a new one, the company offers a mail-in service in a number of different countries to collect the old devices for recycling.
3. CUTTING BOARDS MADE FROM RECYCLED PLASTIC BOTTLE CAPS
Matt and Jonny, the UK-based siblings and content creators of Brothers Make, have designed an upcycled cutting board made from used plastic bottle tops. Matt, a design and technology secondary school teacher, and Jonny, a senior account manager at a marketing firm, started making things together in 2018 as a way of spending more quality time together which eventually led to launching a YouTube channel.
After gaining traction, the brothers opened an online store selling products made using 100 per cent recycled waste plastic. The shop sells a variety of things, ranging from plant pots, coasters and coffee caddies to buttons, Māori Pendants and guitar picks.
To ensure the chopping boards comply with safety standards, the brothers say that all the plastic that they receive is hand-sorted to ensure it is food-grade HDPE plastic and that there are no non-plastic contaminants left on the plastic. They then run the plastic through three sorting and cleaning cycles before being heated. They also said that they keep the heating process at around 140-160 degrees so that no fumes are introduced to the plastic or burning occurs.
4. UMBRELLAS DESTINED FOR LANDFILL TURNED INTO BEAUTIFUL HOME FURNISHINGS
Anti is a new design company created with a singular purpose. Every product that the business builds is upcycled from an item that is rarely, if ever, recycled. The first collection is a series of desk and table lamps made from discarded umbrellas. With more than one billion umbrellas thrown away worldwide each year, the volume of available material is vast.
One of the main reasons that umbrellas are so wasteful is that they are not built to last. As part of the throwaway culture that simply replaces rather than repairs items, hundreds of thousands of pounds of metal, plastic and nylon are wasted annually through the incineration or dumping of umbrellas as rubbish.
The team dissembles each umbrella into its separate materials. Plastic pieces are either reused as is or melted down for 3D printing into new shapes. The final designs echo the original shapes of the umbrellas yet are far stronger and are built to be repaired and used for many years. If a customer wants to discard a lamp, the company runs a take-back scheme that reintegrates the returned item back into the circular design process.
5. NOVEL WOOD DECKING MADE FROM PLASTIC BAGS
Wood decking is beautiful and versatile, but not very sustainable. However, a Virginia-based company has developed a way to make ‘wooden’ decking almost entirely from waste products. The company turns reclaimed sawdust and plastic bags into composite deck boards and is now one of the largest plastic bag recyclers in the US.
Trex’s process is green from start to finish. Its proprietary processing method first cleans plastic film and grinds it into granules. These are then combined with sawdust reclaimed from factories, and the mixture is heated to give it a soft, pliable consistency. Profile dies are used to form the mixture into boards, which are cooled and cut to the desired length.
A standard, 16-foot board will use around 2,250 plastic bags, most of them the hard-to-recycle, thin-film type that is often used as sandwich bags, overwrap on kitchen rolls and as newspaper sleeves. To source the plastic, the company has set up its own nationwide recycling programme, with drop off points outside stores and in local communities and schools. Trex will also pay businesses that generate a lot of plastic waste to take the waste off their hands.
6. KENYAN STARTUP RECYCLES PLASTIC INTO BRICKS STRONGER THAN CONCRETE
Tired of waiting for the government to come up with solutions to the plastic pollution problem in Kenya, Nzambi Matee decided to take matters into her own hands. The entrepreneur set up a factory, named Gjenge Makers, that recycles plastic waste into bricks stronger than concrete. The Nairobi-based factory has developed a prototype machine that is able to produce 1,500 bricks each day, made from a mix of different kinds of plastics.
Matee collects the waste material from packaging factories for free and pays for the plastic from other recyclers. Working with a combination of high-density polyethylene used in milk and shampoo bottles, low-density polyethylene found in sandwich and cereal bags, and polypropylene used in ropes and buckets, the machine first churns the plastic waste with sand, then heats it and finally compresses it to form bricks.
Although Matee does stay away from PET, which is found most commonly in plastic bottles, Gjenge Makers has managed to recycle more than 20 tonnes of plastic waste into paving bricks since 2017, all of which come in an array of colours. Matee also plans to add a bigger production line that could triple capacity and hopes to break even by the end of this year.
7. UPCYCLED PLASTIC WASTE TURNED INTO STYLISH PUBLIC FURNITURE
An estimated eight million tonnes of plastic contaminate the world’s oceans every year, adding to the 180 million tonnes that are already there. Ninety per cent of the plastic enters the oceans via rivers, including the Shin Mun River in Sha Tin, Hong Kong. In an attempt to alleviate this problem, two designers from Hong Kong-based HIR studio have created a collection of twelve benches. Looking to the Shin Mun River for inspiration, Howard Chung and Irene Cheng collected single-use plastic waste and upcycled them into stylish pieces of public furniture. The pair found that due to the lack of recycling bins and collection points, only thirteen per cent of Hong Kong’s plastics are repurposed, and plastics are often being downcycled into rubbish bags or containers, therefore only extending them by one lifecycle.
Chung and Cheng tracked down a supply of recyclable HDPE plastics, with the help of NGOs Waste No Mall and the Sha Tin Recycling Centre, which collects from public housing estates and green stations every week. The process of designing the benches involved taking 20,000 items of salvaged plastic, weighing roughly half a tonne and mixing them with virgin plastic to ensure that the furniture was strong enough to withstand plastic use. As they found that there were still too many impurities in the composition from the recycling factories in Hong Kong, the pair turned to a factory in Foshan in southern China to produce the benches. There, the Sha Tin plastic was first shredded, then melted and then squeezed from a gigantic pipe, before being pulverised into pellets and set in moulds.
Written By: Holly Hamilton
This article was first published in July 2021 and updated on 06/07/2022
16th July 2021