Polymateria says it has overcome plastic’s ‘impossible challenge’

Add a special pellet to the mix when producing plastic and, at a pre-determined time, the material will “self destruct”.

This “seemingly impossible material science challenge” has been accomplished by UK company Polymateria, says co-founder Lee Davy-Martin.

Last week, it secured an additional £20m to commercialise the tech “on a global scale”. And fmcg has been cited as an “ideal application” for the plastic-destructing pellets.

Considering an estimated 32% of all plastic ends up in the open environment, Polymateria could solve a huge problem. But what sort of impact will it make?

To catch on, Polymateria will first need to break down scepticism around any plastics that claim to be biodegradable, compostable or otherwise safely vanish into the environment.

“When something sounds too good to be true, it usually is,” says Nusa Urbancic, campaigns director at Changing Markets.

A 2020 UCL study found 60% of biodegradable and compostable plastic in consumer products was not fully compostable at home. Other studies have found widespread confusion about the terms, meaning the plastics “might accidentally contaminate recyclable waste streams or compost bioplastic, which is only compostable in industrial facilities, not in home compost,” Urbancic says.

And claiming the packaging will break down in the natural environment “without unintended consequences” could increase littering, she adds.

Polymateria’s solution is different from what we’ve seen before, of course. It’s not a type of plastic, but a ‘drop in’ added during manufacturing. At a set time, the solution begins to break down the plastic into a waxy gloop that is consumed by “natural agents of decay” like microbes, fungi and bacteria.

After it ‘self-destructs’, Polymateria-treated plastics leave no microplastics or toxic residue, it says.

But convincing the grocery sector of these benefits could be tricky. After all, the process sounds a lot like that of oxo-degradable plastics, which can degrade into microplastics that remain in the environment indefinitely. In 2020, Tesco, Waitrose, Aldi, Co-op, and environmental groups called for a UK ban on oxo-degradables, as has happened in the EU.

Cost concern

Cost, too, is a major consideration for producers. Polymateria says that depends on application and scale. However, it has been reported to add around 10% to 15% to packaging costs.

To its advantage is its ability to work with existing manufacturing processes, meaning “the cost increase is significantly lower than other solutions”.

“Given there is no need for producers to invest heavily in new machines and equipment, we don’t see cost being a major barrier to adoption,” says Polymateria’s global comms chief Steven Altmann-Richer.

Still, there are doubts over the scalability of the solution. Polymateria’s tech “is already being used around the world” it says.

But the live use cases it has shared are limited. Among them are drinking cups at Twickenham Rugby Stadium and the Chicago Marathon.

“These are often small-scale projects, producing relatively expensive materials, which are unlikely to ever scale up to the level to present any significant alternative for the huge and growing production of conventional plastic,” says Urbancic.

While worthwhile, there is a risk such solutions are more of a distraction than an answer to the pollution problem, argues Unpackaged founder Catherine Conway. Grocers are increasingly seeking alternatives to plastic packaging – like refillable containers.

“It’s important we keep trying to develop novel technologies to solve the problem of existing single-use packaging polluting our environment,” she says. “However, we need to move up the ‘waste hierarchy’ and focus on plastic reduction strategies.”

On that point, Polymateria’s Altmann-Richer agrees. “In parallel to this, we still need a major focus on reducing, reusing and recycling as much plastic as possible,” he says. “This is a complex global challenge with no silver bullets.”