Since sailor Charles Moore found himself in a “thick soup of plastic” 19 times the size of Taiwan on the way from Hawaii to California, needing a full seven days before he was free of it, the world has been trying to think of a way to solve the problem of plastic waste.
At the end of the 20th century, the US company NatureWorks invented PLA (Polylactic Acid), which is extracted from corn starch, polymerised into polylactic acid particles, and at last poured into a machine to produce the same substance as plastic.
When exposed to a certain temperature and humidity, this material can be decomposed by microorganisms into water, methane and carbon dioxide. In the end, nothing is left at all, so the market has called it “biodegradable” plastic. Soon after its invention, McDonald’s began using it to produce cutlery, the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games supplied tableware and garbage bags made from it, and Europe and Japan followed in developing all kinds of materials and objects based on a similar technology.
It is common to see plastic cups from fast food chains, coffee shops and convenience stores in Taiwan. Unfortunately, even though most of the world is now using biodegradable plastic, a “thick soup of plastic” still exists. So, what is going on?
If the environment is not right, it cannot decompose
Chang Chia-li, deputy general manager of Hong Ming Eco Technology, pointed out that although this material can be decomposed, it will not just disappear if randomly thrown away by the side of the road. Instead, it must be exposed to a temperature between 50 and 60 degrees, with a humidity of over 95 for aerobic or anaerobic bacteria to eat up the plastic.
A composting site is the most favourable place for decomposition to take place. Taking the EU standard as an example, 95% of membrane material is decomposed within 180 days, while 3D materials will take one to three years. The thicker the material, the longer it needs to decompose. Without high temperature and humidity, it will just be broken into flakes visible to the human eye.
Therefore, in order to reach the final stage of decomposition, it is necessary to recycle or bury plastic waste. But this is not easy in Taiwan. Chang Chia-li asked: “If you turn plastic products upside down, you will see a number from 1 to 7. Which one is most commonly recycled?” The answer is number 1, “PET”, plastic bottles. “Which number is biodegradable plastic?” The answer is number 7, “OTHER”.
Clearly, besides number 1, the other types of plastic are not necessarily always recycled. Indeed, the fact that PLA is not really a plastic means it will reduce the quality of the finished product when mixed with other types of plastic in the recycling process. Therefore, most factories will pick this type out piece by piece and discard it, such that PLA left alone continues to find its way to the sea. And because it is denser than water, it is bound to sink to the bottom of the sea where it will forever be difficult to remove.
Although it seems that Taiwan really is imitating Europe in separating out and recycling PLA, without sufficient composting sites like in Europe, PLA is most likely to be burned in an incinerator.
“To put it bluntly, biodegradable plastic is only solving human inertia,” Chang Chia-li said. “Humans invented PLA hoping to throw it out with peace of mind. Out of sight, out of mind. But after 20 years, the original goal of reducing garbage has not been achieved.”
On the other hand, garbage reduction is not currently the issue of greatest concern. Leaders from all over the world hold climate summits every year where all they discuss is mitigating greenhouse gas emissions. For this reason, although now committed to the development of bio-plastic, Hong Ming started out with biodiesel.
Founders Yang Hua-hong and Chang Chia-li are both law graduates. After working for short times in law firms, they went to China to work in the plastic industry in 2002. In 2008, after spotting the potential of renewable energy, they called on a group of Taiwanese postgraduate students to help them extract oil from microalgae to produce biodiesel.
But at the time, one litre of petrochemical diesel was only about NT $19, while biodiesel was much more expensive. Thanks to government subsidies, the major gas stations were willing to add just 1% to their tanks. Within just two years, the uncertainty of their company’s future became clear to them both.
Plastic blended from starch and fibre: environmentally friendly and durable
Even following the failure of their original plan, their initial desire to use biomaterials did not change. At that time, China, faced with the pressure of carbon emission reduction targets, was fiercely promoting all sorts of related policies, including those that encouraged the use of biological materials to replace some petrochemical plastics, which caught the attention of Yang and Chang.
With reinvigorated ambition, they asked the Taiwanese postgraduate students that they had previously cooperated with to modify the PSM (Plastarch Material) developed by Ecoplast Technologies Inc. Eventually, they were able to mix PSM with petrochemical plastics to create products not only with higher physical properties than PLA, but also that could enter recycling plants to be recycled in existing systems without influencing the quality of the finished product.
In the first few years, they spent their time merely testing their skills as amateur entrepreneurs. It was not until later, when the world’s largest shoe OEM, Pou Chen Corporation, came knocking at their door that the two realised they could not “play” any longer, but needed to fully commit themselves to mass production.
“At the time, we struggled with deciding where to set up the company. China was more convenient for us and the bio-plastic industry there was also more mature than in Taiwan, but the disadvantage was that technology tends to be copied there. Taiwan was a long way behind, but had the benefits of a complete traditional plastic supply chain and had also retained mid-range and high-end technology,” Chang Chia-li said.
After humming and hawing dragged on to 2012, Hong Ming finally decided to keep research and development in Taiwan, at the same time as targeting the Chinese market. Following this, while reducing the amount of PSM used, they also went about modifying starch, bamboo powder, rice husks, wheat straw, stalks, coffee grounds and so on to finally develop their own NPPm (Nature Polymer Plastic material), which could work in various finished products to adjust the physical properties, such as slip, bend, pull, tear etc.
“In comparison, the physical strength of traditional plastic is much greater. Products with all sorts of functions can be made with your eyes closed. Some plastic bags can even withstand a weight of 10kg. This is not possible with bio-plastic. Instead, it is necessary to make up the formula based on the purpose of the product. This formula is a key technique in the industry.”
Chang Chia-li pointed out that after modification takes place, the factory does not need to change the equipment process. Instead, NPPm and traditional plastic can be placed into the machine together, and it is possible to complete all activities, such as film blowing, blow moulding, injection moulding and extrusion moulding.
Products made with a mix of biological and petrochemical materials are known as biobased plastic. According to EU certification standards, products containing 20-40% biomass are “one star”, those with 40-60% are “two stars”, 60-80% are “three stars”, and more than 80% are “four stars”. In the cases of the United States and Japan, 25% is the lower limit for certification to be awarded.
Although biobased plastic cannot decompose completely in a short time, its biomass decomposition destroys its molecular chain, making it disappear about 10 times faster than traditional plastic. In addition, because its associated costs, processes, quality, and recycling methods are not too different from those of the past, producers and consumers do not need to change their former habits. Chang Chia-li believes that biobased plastic can be expected to erode away at the petrochemical plastic market.
Gradually substituting, in anticipation of a complete overturn of the plastic market
“Honestly, there is another contradiction related to PLA. The cost is twice as much, and it cannot be made very durable or else it will not decompose. Ultimately, it can only produce disposable knife and fork cups, which is equivalent to making low- end products with high-end materials.”
Chang Chia-li pointed out that no one in the world is yet able to develop cheap and durable plastic products with reduced carbon and waste, so biobased plastic will allow us to transition to the future. “It is just like we cannot yet afford Tesla electric cars – hybrid cars that use petrol and electricity are better than nothing.”
Despite having already made compromises, Hong Ming was still snubbed in negotiations with major factories. Both partners then had the idea of directing their promotion to the brands at the end of the supply chain, suggesting that packaging be printed with large biobased symbols and data about how much carbon has been saved. This really worked at persuading big companies like JD.com, Perfect, SF Express and Watsons Personal Care Stores to shift to using biobased packaging one after the other.
In Taiwan, Hong Ming has also helped the well- known shampoo brand O’right to produce its “tree in the bottle”, made from 100% coffee grounds. When it is buried in the earth, all parts of the bottle will decompose, while at the same time planting an acacia tree. O’right won a Red Dot Design Award for this design.
Another health care brand, A Green Leaf, once discarded the rice bran after extracting rice bran oil from Taitung’s Chishang, before Hong Ming recommended using it to make bottles instead. A Green Leaf agreed, expecting to make the bottle fully decomposable. But Hong Ming pointed out, “cleaning supplies are usually kept in places with high temperature and humidity, which offer the best conditions for decomposition. Customers may not yet have used up the contents before the bottle cracks.” Therefore, A Green Leaf shifted to using biobased plastic.
Currently, 80% of the products that use Hong Ming’s materials are biobased, while 20% are biodegradable and mostly plastic bags. Among these, there are also storage bags that use a biobased porous material to absorb the ethylene naturally released by fruit, delaying the speed of ripening and extending the storage period.
Following growing awareness of the importance of environmental protection, the biobased plastic market has been rapidly expanding. Chang Chia-li believes that the next step is to improve the effectiveness of recycling. At present, Hong Ming is in discussions with Zhongshan City in Guangdong Province about the government regulating that all plastic bags be printed with QR code that contains information like the manufacturer, materials used, manufacturing time and consumer data. After the bags are recycled, companies need only scan the QR code to quickly sort them, making it more convenient for follow-up factories to recycle using the purest materials. On the other side, consumers could receive feedback in the form of discounts, bonuses, lotteries and so on.
If companies were really able to recycle their own products, they would have essentially established a “closed loop” system, completing the last mile in the circular economy. Although there is still room for hard work, Chang Chia-li is prepared, saying:“No matter how big the plastic market is in the future – that will be the size of bio-plastic’s future too. No matter what, we need to fight against oil!”