These scientists are helping B.C. companies cut plastic pollution
A team of scientists in Vancouver is helping businesses in B.C. find more sustainable packaging materials as they try to curb environmentally damaging plastic waste.
Love-Ese Chile is co-founder of Regenerative Waste Labs in Vancouver, which tests plastics advertised as “compostable” to see how they actually break down.
“These materials are ending up in landfills or in the environment, and it’s a huge economic burden,” the University of B.C. chemistry graduate said.
Although the company’s eight-employee team doesn’t invent new materials, it researches and compares eco-friendly options for other businesses, Chile explained.
The company’s mission is to “improve the circular economy for bio-based products,” and to research ways to “manage these materials at the end of their life.”
“How can we manage plastic waste more effectively?” Chile asked. “And how we can make sure that — instead of losing its value into the environment as pollution — we’re able to harness those materials and feed them back into the economic system?”
Plastic waste was the subject of this week’s United Nations Environment Assembly, which resulted in a binding international agreement on plastics.
A growing number of organizations in Canada are exploring how to manage plastic waste better. Those include not just Regenerative Waste Labs, but also EcoPackers, a Toronto firm that converts plant waste into compostable plastic. In B.C., Simon Fraser University’s Food Systems Lab is also doing bio-plastic research.
A McGill University laboratory studying bio-plastics and micro-plastics discovered two years ago that tea bags made of plastic can release billions of microscopic particles.
Plastics labelled “compostable” or “biodegradable” don’t often break down as advertised, except under specific industrial processes not widely available in B.C., Chile said.
Truly compostable tea bags
One of the laboratory’s clients is Vancouver fair-trade tea company JusTea. Premium loose-leaf teas are too bulky for traditional paper packets, so high-end teas now often use larger plastic “silk” or “pyramid” bags.
Tiny plastics leached from such bags are worse than people might think, said Paul Bain, JusTea‘s self-described “tea captain”; even corn-based or food-grade nylon ones can pollute.
So JusTea tasked Chile’s team with finding something better. They came up with a sugarcane-derived tea bag.
“This new bio-based tea bag actually is compostable,” Bain said. “It can go through the current waste systems all over Canada, because it can compost in three weeks.”
Another lab client is Associated Labels and Packaging, which wanted truly eco-friendly bags, wrappers and lids. The lab has run “biodegradation tests” on everything from bio-plastic cutlery to toothbrushes.
Plastic in the food chain
Plastic pollution has long been a concern for scientists because of its harms to marine life.
“In the end, everything which is washed into rivers and creeks ends up in the ocean,” said Jutta Gutberlet, geography professor at the University of Victoria. “The most serious impact is actually that the plastic, over time, will be broken down into smaller pieces and then it gets into the food chain.”
She hopes the newly approved UN global plastic pollution treaty will restrict new plastic manufacturing and encourage a “circular economy” to recycle all plastic, while offering fair employment to communities.
“The biggest problem is that we continue to produce new plastics … and many of these new plastic materials are not recyclable or they are just not captured in waste management,” Gutberlet said in an interview from Brazil, where she researches people who earn income by collecting recyclable waste.
“If they are not 100 per cent recyclable, if there is no solution found yet, they should not be put onto the market anywhere.”
Whether through new technologies or government regulations, a variety of approaches are needed to tackle a global crisis, Chile and Gutberlet agreed. As an avid science educator, Chile said she’s been inspired by the diversity of her laboratory team.
Having more voices at the table, and behind the microscope, is essential to their mission, she believes.
“The more different perspectives we have when reviewing a problem, the more the solution will be wholly applicable to different people in different places.”