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Plastic fantastic: can eco plastics save the world?

From food packaging to toys to airplanes… plastic is definitely one of the world’s most versatile, universal and, arguably, necessary materials. But – it comes at a cost. Made from synthetic carbon-based polymers made mostly from petroleum, plastic is a material that, once processed, does not easily integrate back into nature.

Yes, that bottle of water, in the hand for an average of 12 minutes, will remain on this earth for hundreds, if not thousands, of years if left to decompose of its own accord. Therein comes the plastic dilemma: disposable, dispensable and ubiquitous products of a material engineered to last forever (well, almost).

Plastic disposal creates pollution and leads to a catalogue of environmental disasters, such as The Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Getting rid of plastic is extremely difficult. Burning it releases toxic fumes. Recycling is complicated due to the many and various types of plastics all requiring different processes.

In an attempt to address our plastic addiction, a new wave of ‘environmentally friendly’ plastics are now hitting the scene. These plastics can be broadly divided into three types:

  1. Bioplastics: made from natural materials such as corn starch
  2. Biodegradable plastics: still made from petrochemicals but designed to break down faster
  3. Eco/recycled plastics: made from recycled plastics

Let’s take a look at them in turn.

Bioplastics are made on the principle that if we make plastic from kinder material to begin with they’ll break down more easily when we are done with them. Commonly made from corn, they often look indistinguishable from traditional plastic products. In addition to using less energy to produce, bioplastics also produce 70% less greenhouse gases when they degrade in landfills. (Read more on NatureWorks.) Products made from this type of plastic are surprisingly wide-ranging, in use for everything from 3D printing to beauty and household.

Biodegradable plastics are something you may have noticed if you are in the habit of reading supermarket bags. These plastics contain additives that will cause them to break down faster in the presence of light and oxygen (‘oxo-degradable’). Unlike their bioplastic counterparts, these plastics contain all the usual suspects of petrochemical base materials, may not degrade in landfill conditions and will leave a toxic residue when decomposed, making them unsuitable for composting.

Recycled plastics are one solution to turn old waste materials into new products – and that doesn’t just mean more plastic bottles. Plastics can, in fact, be recycled into everything from new shoes to building materials to clothes. It is more difficult to judge the benefit of recycled plastic for the environment, given that we must consider any potential saving in water and energy it takes to collect, process and transform old material versus simply making it anew.

However, the benefits of rubbish elimination and environmental transformation can be significant. An exemplary example of this is Haiti, where the lack of a formal rubbish collection system has led citizens to take control of their environment, establishing The Plastic Bank:

3 Problems with ‘eco’ plastics.

Unfortunately, saving the world is never as easy as one may hope. As with most things, the new ways to manage plastics face limits and complications. Three of the fundamental problems with the new plastics are:

  1. Even bio plastic takes its time to die. Biodegradable plastics and bio plastics do not decompose that easily. They need moisture and heat and good conditions and the process can take many years and then, still, leave behind a nasty residue.
  2. Recycling dilemma. Biodegradable plastics and bio plastics are not easy to recycle. The mix up of these plastics with traditional plastic products can wreak havoc on recycling management programmes, undermining years of effort. Companies need to be more clean in how to properly dispose of their products.
  3. The jargon. Many people thing terms like ‘biodegradable’, ‘compostable’ and ‘bioplastic’ are interchangeable, whilst they all signify a variety of different production and waste processes. This can hinder efforts to bring the products to market and consumers are a long way from being clear in their choice.

So, what’s the verdict on the earth credentials of eco plastics?

Whilst it is encouraging to see the progress made to solve the issue with traditional plastics, it is clear we are far off a perfect solution. Biodegradable plastics are, in particular, in the spotlight for misleading with the environmental promise given the length of time they take to decompose and their inherent toxic consistency. Bioplastics are in the line of fire for using GM crops and confusing recycling systems. Plastic recycling, in the meantime, does not eliminate the need for production of new products in the first instance.

As usual, in the end it’s just down to you. Some tips for assisting the plastic problem are:

  1. That canvas / reusable bag you have hanging around – put a few in the car and carry one around in your jacket pocket or handbag
  2. Collect loose fruit and vegetables from the supermarket isle rather than buying them prepackaged
  3. Invest in longer lasting items with replaceable parts rather than disposable items – e.g. drinking bottles, razor blades, pens, reusable coffee cups etc.
  4. Think about what you are buying. The heart trembles at the idea of how much empty space in the world is filled with unwanted Kinder Surprise toys.
  5. Dispose of your plastic properly. We know now that it matters.

Further Reading:

Biodegradable plastics: are they better for the environment?

Greenwash: Biodegradable bags carry more ecological harm than good.

Biodegradable plastic: ‘false solution’ for ocean waste problem

The difference between degradable, biodegradable and compostable

The New Plastic Economy: Catalyzing Action


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Living off the… Lab. What should we think about engineered meat?

What can’t you get from a test tube these days? Organs, diseases and cures, animals – and even human offspring are popping out of labs like DIY creation ovens.

Now, the figure in a white coat serving up your freshly cooked steak may not be a friendly chef – but another lab technician. Welcome to a new generation of meat sourced not a New Zealand pasture, Yorkshire dales or a questionable third world slaughterhouse – but a standard, clinical petridish.

So, what is cultured meat? Known otherwise as synthetic meat, cell-cultured meat, engineered meat, vitro meat or ‘clean meat’, it is a cell-cultured product grown in a lab rather than barn or pasture. It is, for all intends and purposes, the same steaming slab of animal muscle cells as traditional meat without, as every animal rights activist will tell you, the antibiotics, the climate change impact, the transportation, or the slaughter.

One of the first to forecast the invention of engineered meat was the ever-precocious British national treasure, Winston Churchill.  In 1931, he already suggested “We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium…The new foods will from the outset be practically indistinguishable from the natural products, and any changes will be so gradual as to escape observation.” (Read more on from the great man here).

As early as 1971, muscle fibers have been cultivated in vitrio by Russell Ross who observed the ability of cells of guinea pig aorta to synthesize. The research progressed with NASA, who in 2001 produced meat from turkey cells and goldfish which could, in principle, be cooked and consumed to feed astronauts on long-distance space missions.

The first patents for engineered meat for human consumption were filed by American Jon F. Vein in 1998 (US) and a Dutch dermatologist, doctor and businessman triumvirate in 2001 (worldwide). In 2008, PETA offered $1m to the first company to bring lab meat to consumers and, from then on, corporate and governmental interest in engineered meat production has only gathered pace, with Time magazine declaring it one of the top 50 breakthrough ideas for the future in 2009.

Today, tissue engineering for consumption is rapidly developing along other, less appetizing biotechnology topics such as tissue regeneration, organ transplants and regenerative medicine. The recipe starts with stems cells, developed muscle cells, myosatellite cells or myoblasts. In a world of consumers growing wary of unrecognizable  alien ingredients, the hard sell for lab meat starts here.

The starter cells are then coated in protein, placed in a bio reactor and stretched on a scaffold that is periodically moved to simulate natural tissue growth. In ideal conditions, this type of meat fabrication is claimed to yield up to 50,000 tons of pork meat from 10 pork muscle cells in just two months (Read all about it).

Although this material is biochemically identical to ‘real meat’, many stomachs may automatically churn at the thought of dinner having relating to the insalubrious topic of molecular cell extraction. However, given that the essential building materials of the product are one and the same – minus the antibiotics, hormones and other foreign bodies used to treat live animals – is our aversion to lab meat anything other than cosmetic?

The engineered meat industry currently suffers from the disadvantages of high costs and lack of commercial capacity. However, if it is ever to go to market with success, its main problem may be something much more difficult to overcome than money or manufacturing. Its main problem may be a basic question of perception and demand. What do you do to turn engineered tissue into a succulent dinner option? What would it take to normalize lab meat?

Oddly enough, without realizing it or not, today’s consumer is absolutely comfortable with a healthy serving of the artificial, including plenty in our food. Sweeteners, chemical substitutes, additives, colorants, preservatives, E numbers, flavourings and flavour enhancers and well-known nasties like MSG are all a permanent feature in our diet. Depending on hunger (or alcohol…) levels and stage of on/off flirtation with the vegan plan diet, concern over what we are putting in our mouth tends to waver and change. However, no one is panicking about their gum having something in common with petroleum. As long as our food isn’t of a living, beating heart with eyes variety, we don’t mind the chemical levels here any more than we question any other substance we clean, moisturise or treat ourselves with.

So, is our problem with the ‘artificial’ bit of artificial meat?

It could be argued that the lab meat industry suffers from one problem the livestock industry tends not to have – transparency. We know how just how engineered meat is sourced, grown and treated. On the other hand, few abattoirs are throwing open their doors to the general public to witness the culling and treatment of carcasses. Packets of bargain chicken are put into trolley baskets without much thought of how a bird can be hatched, reared, slaughtered, transported and prepped for less than the price of a shop coffee. Free range eggs may be a modern badge of virtue, but not many know that, free range or caged, live male chicks at egg farms are gassed in the UK within a day of hatching for their lack of capacity to lay further eggs. In other countries, they are thrown alive into a meat grinder. It doesn’t automatically make buying eggs wrong. It is just a fact about eggs.

Raise an issue of this type with company at a dinner party and conversation is extinguished faster than a tea light candle at high seas. It is hard to say anything about the meat industry without automatically being perceived as a lunatic of the henna-ed hair and bad hemp trousers variety. An innocuous comment in normal, conversational tones tends to be perceiving as a preachy, guilt-inducing, emotional, hair-tearing dig at a human being’s god-given right to a juicy rack of lamb. Many of the facts of the meat industry are upsetting and, given that the world is upsetting enough, most people just don’t want to invite an unsettling conversation that leads to the conclusion that something about them or their life choices is wrong.

Ultimately, real animals in the meat production cycle are no different to their artificial meat counterparts. They are a product for consumption. The opinions on what is real and natural can quickly become blurred with a little research.

In short, engineered meat is set to rattle a lot of convention beyond our simple idea that meat comes from a moving, conscious creature that is born and dies. On the surface, it may get the thumbs up for reducing the environmental impact of livestock rearing, avoiding growth hormones, eliminating animal meat borne diseases and avoiding GM animal feed. However, given that some animal cells are used, is the product really vegetarian? Can fiddling about with the cells of living beings really count as ‘ethical’? Are scientists playing God again? With no fat or bone, is it a true meat substitute? Is it kosher? Is it halal?

Millions may already dig into meat substitute like Quorn, but whilst we know that Quorn is a fermented fungal microprotein that we have grown comfortable with, maybe engineered meat is actually too close to the real thing for comfort. Yes, maybe s*** just got too real.

So, Frankenmeat or green meat? There is a long way to go until lab meat is being stocked into the supermarket. Until then, there is plenty of time to think.

Further Reading:

The Future Will Be Full of Lab Grown Meat

Artificial chicken grown from cells gets a taste test – but who will regulate it?

Should I be nervous about lab grown meat?

Lab-grown meat gives food for thought

Make your own meat with open source cells – no animals necessary