We’ve all seen it—the picture of a sea turtle with a straw up its nose or a plastic bag caught in a shrub and waving in the breeze.
Plastic pollution is real and undeniable. We try to do the right thing in our own homes and recycle our plastic packaging, but we can’t escape the images of piles of plastic washing up on beaches. The irrefutable evidence of the plastic waste problem can feel overwhelming, but what if the solution has been right under our noses all along? What if it’s in the literal air we breathe?
The same air we pollute with carbon dioxide emissions could offer the building blocks needed to create the go-to packaging material we depend on.
If it sounds complicated, well, it is. It involves greenhouse gases and biocatalysts, and it may just be revolutionary. To slow down climate change, there’s a laundry list of items the global community needs to do immediately—two of those things involve removing carbon from the atmosphere and curbing our plastic waste problem. There is no silver bullet to either of these, but Newlight Technologies believes that “solutions are built from common ground—the places where we agree—are the most scalable and enduring.” The California-based company has developed a way to produce plastic from carbon emissions that is completely biodegradable, a plastic material made by combining air and captured carbon emissions dubbed AirCarbon.
It all starts with capturing methane emissions from places like farms, landfills, and water treatment plants. Typically, this methane is either flared (burned) or vented. Gas venting—the controlled releasing of gas into the atmosphere—is a significant contributor to climate change. The methane gets rerouted from its normal venting process to a conversion reactor, where those emissions get mixed with air and a biocatalyst. The biocatalyst pulls oxygen out of the air and carbon and hydrogen out of the methane, combining the molecules to make a long chain thermoplastic polymer molecule—AirCarbon.
Here’s the kicker—you can process those molecules (Polyhydroxybutyrate, or PHB) into plastic pellets that can get shaped and formed as needed. Since the biocatalysts used in this process originated in the ocean with microorganisms that feed on methane and carbon dioxide, Newlight figured out how to replicate this process on land. AirCarbon gets made using the air we breathe and the oceans and waterways we pollute, resulting in removing carbon from the atmosphere. Mind-blowing, right?
All consumers look to new sustainable materials and practices with plenty of skepticism. If you spend much time in the “sustainable” world, you learn that tradeoffs are the name of the game. One has to wonder just how much energy gets consumed to create AirCarbon.
The Carbon Trust found that for every kilogram of AirCarbon produced in Newlight’s production process, 88 kilograms of greenhouse gasses get captured. By consuming greenhouse gas as a resource and powering the process with renewable energy, the material is carbon negative. Of course, having a piece of carbon-negative packaging is fantastic, but we still need to account for what happens to that packaging at the end of its life.
Human industry produces waste, and a lot of it is plastic. Over 63% of municipal waste consists of plastic packaging, and just 35% of that gets recycled. Even far less is composted.
However, we don’t just have a plastic problem—for over a century, we’ve had a food waste problem. As much as 40% of all food goes unsold or uneaten in the US. The majority of that waste ends up in landfills, where it releases methane (and is ranked as one of the top contributors to climate change). Plastic has helped our food waste problem. Not only does it create barriers that allow food to get protected during transport, but it helps it live longer on shelves and in our homes. A cucumber wrapped in plastic can last for 14 days, whereas an unwrapped cucumber will only last five.
Plastic has been an asset for all major industries, particularly the food industry. But from our desire to eliminate food waste, we have created a seemingly insurmountable plastic waste problem. In 2020, food wrappers were the number one reported item along beaches and waterways worldwide. Most of the plastic that makes its way to our oceans is because our waterways act as nature’s conveyor belts, funneling it out. With only 9% of plastic getting recycled since its inception, it’s hard to fathom how we can stop it from ending up in the ocean.
That’s where AirCarbon is different. Having come from naturally occurring organisms in the ocean, if you return it to its place of origin, AirCarbon will degrade as it can break down in water. Now, should it be thrown in the ocean? Of course not. But if it ends up there—as a massive percentage of the 91% of un-recycled plastic does—microorganisms will eat it and degrade it because it gets made up of the things they normally eat. Additionally, because it doesn’t come from synthetic materials, it’s biodegradable (degradable on land) and compostable.
Two sizable issues with any new technology or material are scalability and affordability. To be successful, AirCarbon needs to be widely available to lots of different people, and it needs to be worth their while to buy it. One of the biggest aids in this process is adoption by big brands or corporations. Nike has partnered with Newlight to use AirCarbon as a leather and plastic alternative. AirCarbon Air Jordans? Sign us up.
Shake Shack is also running a test of AirCarbon straws and cutlery. AirCarbon has two of its own brands: Restore is cutlery and straws made of AirCarbon, and Covalent is their line of accessories consisting of sunglasses, wallets, handbags, and phone cases, all made of AirCarbon “leather”. What’s more, it’s FDA-approved food-safe, as durable as traditional oil-based plastics, and can withstand heat. The possibilities for food packaging, namely single-use food packaging, are endless. Each day we use an enormous amount of single-use plastic— the lid on our lattes, the container for our yogurt, our standup pouch of granola. The cover for our lattes most likely gets thrown out, while the yogurt container might make it into recycling? As for the standup pouch, how many of us actually utilize the store drop-off “recycle” option for those?
Each of these food items we use daily could get made in a way that is less burdensome on the environment than today’s single-use products. While AirCarbon plastic is cheaper than traditional petroleum-based plastic, Newlight currently only has one facility. Affordability is there, but scalability is limited, and more big brands must join Nike in their commitment to using AirCarbon to scale successfully.
We’re a consumeristic society that has come to rely on single-use plastics. While we can bring our refillable mug to the coffee shop or not buy an unwrapped cucumber until we’re ready to eat it, there are some plastics we can not easily forgo. Cling wrap on meat and poultry is necessary for food safety and public health and don’t even get us started on medical devices.
Thinking we can eliminate every piece of plastic is unrealistic. Nudging the goalposts from elimination to a change in how we produce it and a change in its end of life could be a more pragmatic solution to the plastic problem. AirCarbon could deliver on our single-use lifestyle while meeting us on more sustainable common ground.