New technology could help break down city’s plastic problem

Investors say organic additive can dramatically cut biodegradation time

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 December, 2016, 9:04am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 December, 2016, 9:51am

A group of entrepreneurs want to introduce an inexpensive but organic additive to the plastic used in Hong Kong which they claim will slash the time it takes for the waste to biodegrade in landfills.

And café chain Pacific Coffee may be their first major client.

About a fifth of all Hong Kong’s municipal solid waste sent to landfill is plastic, the second biggest portion after food. Most of it is disposable cutlery, packaging, toys, bags and bottles.

“Almost every week I read about problems about [Hong Kong] landfills overflowing,” said Ryan Jesse, co-founder of Vancouver-based Breakdown Plastic. “The reality is plastic is supposed to be recycled. But it’s not working.”

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The three entrepreneurs behind the Breakdown Plastic hope their product will solve a major headache for the city, in the shrinking amount of space in landfills.

The technology is based on a proprietary organic additive that allows natural micro-organisms to chew through polymers, speeding up biodegradation. Rather than taking around 400 to 500 years, it takes to one to five.

Independent third-party testing has shown 24.7 per cent biodegradation within 160 days under optimised conditions, the company claims.

Peter Hurst, the company’s Hong Kong-based partner, said they were speaking to Pacific Coffee about using the additive in rubbish bags and cutlery, and sensed major potential in the catering sector. The coffee giant confirmed that it was in the initial stages of exploring future use.

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“Pacific Coffee as a company is committed to greater sustainability for long-term environmental benefits and we are both interested and impressed by their new technology,” a spokesman said.

The additive, which comes in the form of small beads, can be added to resins for everything from plastic utensils and stationery to synthetic threads, furniture and even rubber, without weakening durability.

The optimal ratio is 1kg of the additive for every 100kg of plastic resin.

Its chemical formula is covered by two international patents and one US one. Jesse said it would “die with the inventor”, a US-based environment scientist.

The additive is made in the US, and the company is now shipping small amounts to factories in South Korea and India. “The ingredients in there, even we will never know,” Jesse said.

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He said the product differed from plastic alternatives on the market such as polyactic acid and oxo-degradables.

The former, made of corn or sugar cane, does not degrade well when buried in a landfill without adequate air and sunlight, while the latter – to which metal salts are added – “use more energy to make than traditional plastic and have a poor shelf life”, Jesse said.

“All we are doing is adding an organic additive into a traditional system that is already in place and it solves a real big landfill problem,” he said.

Last year, 800,000 tonnes of plastic went into the city’s landfills, a near 9 per cent increase from the year before. Just 4.8 per cent was recovered for recycling.