In 1997 the oceanographer Captain Charles Moore was sailing across the Pacific Ocean when he began to notice a disturbing amount of garbage floating between Hawaii and California. Moore had unknowingly navigated his boat into one of the world’s two trash vortexes, the first stretching from Japan to North America and the second between the Hawaiian archipelago and California, inadvertently becoming the discoverer of what has become known as the Eastern Pacific Garbage Patch.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, these patches are made up of debris that becomes concentrated by ocean eddies and wind acting like cyclones, bringing plastic into concentrated areas whose borders are constantly shifting. These aren’t islands of trash so much as a trash soup; as such they cannot be seen from a plane or satellite. But their environmental impact is colossal.
Plastics are used by industrial society to package everything from water to fruit to headphones. Derived from petroleum (oil or natural gas) and molded into a variety of shapes that make selling and buying products convenient, plastics never disappear. Instead, much of modern society’s garbage breaks down into smaller particles, the toxic elements of which contaminate the ocean’s food chain from bottom to top.
“Now, you can buy certified organic produce. But no fishmonger on earth can sell you a certified organic wild-caught fish,” said Moore in a TED Talk. “This is the legacy we are leaving to future generations.”
Research shows that toxins in petroleum-based plastics, called polychlorinated biphenyls or “PCBs,” are likely carcinogenic in humans. The Environmental Protection Agency reports that studies of PCB workers revealed increases in rare liver cancers and malignant melanomas. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has reported that PCBs damage the immune systems, reproduction, and neurology of animals.
As awareness of the magnitude of problems created by petroleum-based plastics grows in the scientific literature and among consumers, so does the urgency to invent a new kind of packaging that can curb pollution of the oceans and our bodies. Emerging research now points to several new materials sourced from organic matter that have the potential to drive petroleum-based packaging into oblivion by 2025.
One of the most promising new materials is called nanocellulose and it comes from wood. “We’re breaking down the individual structure of a tree to get to the tiniest crystal part of it,” explained Michael Groegen, a forest resource policy expert. “When you break cellulose down to this nano scale, it has incredible strength properties. The numbers say it’s going to be stronger than Kevlar.”
Because of its strength, researchers believe nanocellulose will have a broad range of applications, from electronic displays to automobile body parts. But food packaging has emerged as one of its most promising uses because, like plastic, it keeps oxygen and moisture out.
In the United States, over 30 public and private organizations are currently partnering to conduct research on how to bring this cellulosic nanotechnology from the laboratory to the market. Called P3Nano, the consortium includes the University of Maine, which launched a Nanofiber Pilot Plant this fall as a joint venture with the USDA Forest Service. Researchers at the university are working to create a commercial-scale nanocellulose manufacturing facility capable of producing two tons of the material a day.
Goergen, director of P3Nano, said he believes that advances in cellulosic nanotechnology will help stimulate the economy by creating new and cost-effective products that also meet the needs of people and the environment.
Versions of wood pulp-sourced packaging can already be found in some grocery aisles, encasing products such as coffee in New Zealand and tampons in Europe. Innovia, an international company with headquarters in the United Kingdom, uses sustainably sourced eucalyptus wood to create its NatureFlex products, which have a high moisture barrier and are fully biodegradable—even in the ocean. In 2010, the company tested its products in seawater and discovered that nearly all of them disintegrated within four weeks.
The shift to bio-sourced plastics will likely have highly positive impacts on the marine food chain, where the destructive quality of petroleum-based plastics impacts the survival of species from fish to birds.
In the Midway Atoll, Laysan and Black-footed albatrosses, for example, are critically threatened by petroleum-based plastics. Albatrosses are known for spending as much as 95 percent of their time at sea, but the atoll, a group of sand islands and reefs northwest of the Hawaiian archipelago, is where at least one third of the species give birth to the next generation. Biologists have reported Laysan albatrosses with larger volumes of ingested plastic than those in any other seabird, causing chicks to die of starvation and dehydration.
Innovations in packaging are being driven not only by technological breakthroughs. Governments are pushing for regulations that require plastics to have a higher potential for recycling. The packaging industry generates around $500 billion per year; whoever can invent and adapt new products that meet new regulatory standards will gain a lucrative and expanding marketplace. And the applications for these new materials have the potential to reach far beyond consumer products to impact medicines, textiles, and pharmaceuticals.
Science, consumer preference, and the marketplace are spelling extinction for petroleum-based products, to be replaced by bio-based materials that last only as long as they are useful. “If we could eliminate plastic-based films, it would be incredible,” said Groegen. “There are real concerns about [industrial chemicals] and plastics. Consumers are concerned, and companies are concerned.”