It’s a Wrap

By Catherine

Written by Catherine Bolgar

Whether you like them or not, eggs, cheese, mushrooms or shrimp are likely to be part of your future shopping basket—as the raw materials in a new kind of plastic packaging.

New materials promise not only to reduce our reliance on petroleum products such as plastic, they also cut waste. Packaging accounted for more than 75 million tons (or 30%) of solid waste in the U.S. in 2013, while the European Union generates around 79 million tons of packaging waste annually.

However, waste from the agriculture industry is now being turned into biodegradable packaging materials. For example, Kirsi S. Mikkonen, a researcher at the University of Helsinki, is developing packaging films made from hemicelluloses, byproducts of the forestry industry and agriculture.

Cellulose, the part used by industry, makes up only 40% to 50% of wood, while hemicellulose and lignin each account for about 30%. Hemicelluloses can be retrieved from wood chips or, in thermo-mechanical mills, from wastewater.

Dr. Mikkonen converts the hemicelluloses into films that act as an effective barrier against oxygen. Edible films could protect food from drying out or spoiling, or even within food, to separate pizza crust from sauce. By coating paperboard with the films, she can make plastic-type containers.

Hemicelluloses and lignin can also be used in aerogels, which are porous and light but strong.

“When you put an aerogel in water, it acts like a sponge,” Dr. Mikkonen says. “It absorbs water and you can press it out, and it recovers its shape. We could make something like a soft pillow that could absorb moisture or drips from meat, or it could release active compounds and be used as active packaging.”

Innovations in active packaging abound. The Fraunhofer Research Institution for Modular Solid State Technologies in Munich has developed a sensor film that detects molecules called amines that are released when meat or fish starts to spoil. As amines build up, the sensors turn from yellow to blue, indicating the level of spoilage. Many companies now sell labels and films that keep fruits and vegetables fresh by absorbing ethlyene.

Egg whites could provide another form of active packaging. Alexander Jones, a researcher at the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia, mixed the egg-white protein albumin with glycerol to create a plastic with antibacterial properties.

Albumin plastic could be used for food packaging, to decrease spoilage. It could also be mixed with conventional plastic to add antibacterial properties to medical products, says Suraj Sharma, associate professor at the University of Georgia’s College of Family and Consumer Sciences.

Another reason to mix in conventional plastic is that albumin plastic is too brittle to be used alone for, say, a catheter tube, which needs flexibility, Dr. Jones says.

He also tested plastics made from soy and whey proteins. Soy proteins had no antibacterial properties—“it actually fed bacteria,” he says. Whey proteins mixed with glycerol made antibacterial plastic, but whey plastic minus glycerol acted like soy-based plastic, promoting bacteria growth.

The protein-based plastics have other advantages. They compost quickly, and the manufacturing process uses lower temperatures than for petroleum-based plastics, thereby saving energy. Whey, a byproduct of cheese processing, requires treatment before disposal, so diverting it into plastics would be a boon.

For now, egg whites are far more expensive than polyethelyne. But Dr. Jones believes that we might tap waste streams to get cheaper raw materials.

Egg producers have eggs they don’t ship for various reasons,” Dr. Jones says. Using those “would reduce waste and also not compete with food as an end use.”

Shrimp shells are another waste source that can be turned into plastic. Harvard University researchers have turned chitin, a polysaccharide found in crustacean shells, into a strong, transparent material called shrilk, which can be used to make plastic bags, packaging and even diapers.

Meanwhile, Ecovative, a packaging company in Green Island, N.Y., uses mushrooms as the key ingredient in its compostable packaging. The root structure of a mushroom, called mycelium, acts like a glue. A mix of mycelium and agricultural byproducts is molded into different shapes, replacing styrofoam for example.

Packaging today is essential for society to function,” Dr. Mikkonen says. “We need packaging to deliver food from the maker to the retailer and then to the consumer. But it produces lots of waste. It’s really important to develop some biodegradable alternatives.”


Catherine Bolgar is a former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal Europe. For more from Catherine Bolgar, contributors from the Economist Intelligence Unit along with industry experts, join the Future Realities discussion.

Photos courtesy of iStock

Rebuilt to Last

By Catherine

Written by Catherine Bolgar

Nearly 42 million tons of electric and electronic equipment, 5.9 kilograms per person, were thrown away world-wide last year. But several initiatives now aim to reduce that waste by helping people fix their appliances and devices.

People throw away lots of items that aren’t garbage yet, but simply need to be repaired. The problem is people don’t know how to do that anymore,” says Martine Postma, who launched the first Repair Café, in Amsterdam in 2009.

“But I noticed that in every community there are still some people who do know how to do it. In many cases they are older or retired or have lost their jobs—these people are not the center of attention in our society, but they do have skills.”

The Repair Café Foundation currently has more than 700 local organizers in 18 countries running their own Repair Cafés where people can bring broken appliances and be shown how to fix them by volunteer experts, for free.

“People learn something about repair,” Ms. Postma says. “They see how to open their item, what it does. Often it turns out items aren’t very broken. It’s just a wire or a screw that came loose, or maybe it needs to be cleaned or have the dust blown away. Then people see that repair is a real alternative to throwing away or buying new. Also, it’s fun.”

Small items, such as fans, cameras, vacuum cleaners, coffee makers, toasters, microwaves or electronic toys comprise the biggest category of e-waste, totaling 12.8 million tons, according to the U.N. And the amount of e-waste is growing by 4% to 5% a year.

The European Commission has set minimum targets to recover 85% of appliances, equipment and devices from landfill waste flows, and to prepare 80% for re-use or recycling.

iStock_000028806034_SmallHowever, it isn’t always easy to fix broken objects. Besides lacking know-how, people seldom have the appropriate tools. In some communities, tool libraries lend out an array of equipment, while at Repair Cafés, the repair gurus usually bring their own. “Often, fixing things is their biggest hobby, and they have the right tools,” Ms. Postma says.

They have their work cut out. “Many products have been designed to last only a few years and then be replaced with something new,” she says. “If that’s your idea, then you don’t need to design a product in such a way that it can be opened easily. Or use screws that people have the right screwdriver for. Or share information, with a manual.”

Kyle Wiens searched in vain for a manual after he broke his laptop. “I tried to take it apart, but it was hard to get open,” he says. “I managed to get the computer apart and put it back together, but it wasn’t quite right. I knew that if I had had some insight as to how it was put together, I would have been able to repair it.”

The experience led Mr. Wiens and Luke Soules, in 2003, to co-found iFixit, which writes manuals for products that lack such information. The iFixit staff disassembles products to reverse-engineer repair instructions. They also get help from the repair community, with members posting photographs and explanations to the wiki-based site, to “teach each other along the way,” he says.

iFixit’s advice is free, but the company sells spare parts and specialized tools. Indeed, Mr. Wiens sees parts and service, rather than planned obsolescence, as the future for manufacturers. “If you’re buying a power drill for €25 ($27.80), it’s probably not going to last very long,” he says. “The manufacturer is probably planning on selling you another one.” High-end construction tools, by contrast, are made to last and to be fixed, “because contractors are very demanding,” he notes.

We have a different relationship with cheap, replaceable objects compared with expensive items. With the former, “you’re more or less a slave to the product—you’re no longer master of the product—because you don’t know how it works or how to fix it,” Ms. Postma says. “You only know a new one is available. It is not sustainable to do this. Repair needs to get back into everyday life.”


Catherine Bolgar is a former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal Europe. For more from Catherine Bolgar, contributors from the Economist Intelligence Unit along with industry experts, join the Future Realities discussion.

Photos courtesy of iStock

Sewers paved with gold

By Catherine

Written by Catherine Bolgar

The future gold rush might be to a sewer near you. Municipal sewage contains many metals, including gold, silver and platinum. Concentrations vary by metal, but municipal sewage tends to contain about one part per million of gold. This “isn’t a lot, but for gold it’s significant,” says Kathleen Smith, research geologist at the U.S. Geological Survey, and an expert on metals in biosolids.

Biosolids (treated sewage sludge) are more commonly understood as fertilizer. “It’s high in phosphorus and slow-release nitrogen,” Dr. Smith says. Around half the roughly seven million dry tonnes of biosolids collected at U.S. wastewater treatment plants is recycled as fertilizer, including in public lands and forests.

But while copper and zinc, for example, are essential for plants and animals, these metals may become toxic in high concentrations, hence the need to monitor and regulate the chemical and metal content in waste.

It’s not just the regulated metals such as copper and zinc that now attract attention. “The presence of some valuable metals—such as gold, silver, platinum, and palladium—is [also] of interest, due to their concentration levels,” Dr. Smith says.

In the mining industry, sought-after metals are dispersed. “You have to spend a lot of money and move a lot of rock to get at the metals,” Dr. Smith explains. Recovering metals from sludge, however, is easier. It also complements traditional mining and can be undertaken in any market.

From a sustainability point of view, we’re…trying to find a way to extract metals from [waste streams] that contain large amounts of metals, versus just throwing them in a landfill and dealing with the effects of having the metals dispersed in the environment,” Dr. Smith says.

There’s also money to be made. Arizona State University researchers calculate that a million-strong community produces $13 million worth of metals in biosolids annually. The most lucrative elements—silver, copper, gold, phosphorus, iron, palladium, manganese, zinc, iridium, aluminum, cadmium, titanium, gallium and chromium—have an estimated combined value of $280 per ton ($308 per tonne) of sewage.

A 1978 analysis of incinerated sludge in Palo Alto, California found 30 parts per million of gold and 660 parts per million of silver in the city’s annual ash pile, worth some $2.5 million; since then the gold price alone has risen six-fold.

Knowing the total concentrations of metals in the biosolids is just the first step,” Dr. Smith notes.  The challenge is to release and recover the metals in the correct form to interest the market. “It’s not as easy as multiplying the concentration of the metals by their market value.”

Scientists at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich, for example, are working on a thermal-chemical process to decontaminate sludge, remove harmful heavy metals, and retain the phosphorus as fertilizer.

Meanwhile, JBR Recovery Ltd., in West Bromwich, U.K., has developed a commercially-viable method to recover silver and other precious metals from industrial sludge. Simon Meddings, JBR’s managing director, explains the process. First, a rotary kiln uses combustible silver-bearing waste to dry out most of the moisture. A high-carbon ash is produced—increasing the volume of metals to 10% to 15% from around 0.2%—and placed into a lead-based blast furnace. The lead collects the precious metals, and slag is dispersed through a tap hole at the front of the furnace. The alloy of lead and precious metals then goes into a cupellation furnace, which oxidizes the lead, allowing it to be poured off the top. The remaining bath of molten metal—around 98% pure silver with gold and other platinum group metals present—is cast into bars. These go into moebius cells where an electrical current refines the silver to 99.9%, and collects and refines the gold and platinum separately.

Sludge suppliers are paid according to how much precious metal is extracted and sold, less treatment and refining charges. The photographic industry and chemical production plants are major customers (photographs and x-rays in particular having high metals content).

Nonetheless, many large companies overlook their waste streams, and simply contract waste management companies to dispose of their sludge.

You’d be surprised how much ends up in landfill,” Mr. Meddings says. “People are not aware of the value in it.” They might take more interest “if they know they can get a financial rebate.”


Catherine Bolgar is a former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal Europe. For more from Catherine Bolgar, contributors from the Economist Intelligence Unit along with industry experts, join the Future Realities discussion.

Photos courtesy of iStock

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