Plastic was invented over a century ago, in 1907, and by the 1930’s it was invading the globe with plastic inventions like Nylon, Teflon, and Tubberware. However, it wasn’t until 1973 that the world-famous plastic bottle was invented. Made from polyethylene terephthalate, aka PET, this type of plastic would go on to take over the world, from bottles to food containers to cutlery to bags.
Now, around 500 billion PET bottles and 500 plastic bags are sold and used every year. In fact, more than one million bags are used every minute, and these bags only clock in to work for about 15 minutes before beginning their inevitable journey to a landfill. Plus of the nearly 400 million tons of plastic used each year, half are single-use, and only 10% is recycled.
But what if instead of ending up in a landfill or being tossed in a blue bin, only to maybe get recycled, all the plastic we produce could just… disappear?
That’s the magic act demanded by the climate and biodiversity crises.
In addition to the enormous amount of fossil fuels required to create plastic, once hailed as a magical, unbreakable solution to… everything, plastic pollution places significant stress on biodiversity, may interfere with the ocean’s ability to sequester planet-warming CO2, and can further degrade ecosystems already vulnerable due to climate change.
So far, plastic has performed the magic of persistence. No matter how hard we try, it won’t go away.
Aside from the lack of infrastructure in the U.S. for plastic recycling, the chemical structure of plastic is hard to break. Since the invention of PET, there are now thousands of different types of plastics, and according to some smart people via NPR, none of them can be melted down and fused together. Plus existing technologies that do break down plastic can only go so far, and the result is usually microplastics that end up in our oceans, foods, and yes, bodies.
That’s why many startups, including London-based Polymateria, decided to change the structure of chemical plastic altogether.
“The reason plastic is so persistent in nature is because of the hard crystal structure,” CEO Niall Dunne told Forbes in a 2022 article profiling entrepreneurs turned plastic magicians.
“Our breakthrough moment was when we first realized how to destroy the crystal structure—that’s the key to avoiding creating microplastics—and transform it into something that behaves like a grease or a wax,” he told the publication.
Now, with its most recent Series B round — led by petrochemicals giant Indorama Ventures and Singaporean private equity firm ABC Impact — the company raised £20 million to accelerate the commercialization of its biotransformed plastic and scale it to a global scale.
“We founded Polymateria to make a real difference to one of the world’s biggest environmental challenges,” Lee Davy-Martin, Co-Founder and Board Member of Polymateria said in a statement.
“With the backing of investors like ABC Impact and Indorama Ventures, we are well on the way to achieving our mission.”
Spun out from Imperial College London, Polymateria makes a laundry list of single-use plastic products including shrink wrap, toilet paper bags, flower sleeves, produce bags, wrappers, labels, bread bags, detergent bottles, straws, containers, cups, and so on.
The main difference between Polymateria’s plastic and conventional models is that after it’s used the plastic automatically breaks down into a “wax-like substance” of water, CO2, and biomass, that biodegrades into the natural environment.
The biodegradation process is timed, so you don’t have plastic weathering away on a store shelf or in your pantry. The process can be tweaked per product so that it remains stable anywhere from six months, for a short-lived product like produce bags, to three years, for something that will stick around longer like detergent bottles.
According to the company via its press release, its tech can be deployed with no changes to existing manufacturing processes and is compatible with existing recycling streams. In particular, it's completely compatible with the manufacturing process for plastic packaging, which uses polyolefins, a type of plastic used in over 50% of all plastics in Europe.
With these advantages, Polymateria says their product has “unrivaled scalability.”
As a portfolio company of ABC Impact, the firm hopes to help Polymateria scale across Asia, which houses a lot of the world’s plastic. While the U.S. leads in plastic waste, tailed closely by China and India, China produces nearly a third of the world’s plastic, and Japan 3% with the rest of Asia producing nearly as much as all of North America.
Already, Polymateria is making moves to combat Asia’s plastic pollution problem. In 2020, the startup inked a partnership with the Indian government to apply its biotransformation technology to local brands and packaging companies. Its plastic is also already used by a branch of 7-Eleven in Taiwan, and in England, it was most recently used in a rugby match at Twickenham stadium and at the Chicago marathon in the States.
According to Polymateria, in order to pull off the magic act of vanishing plastic, startups need government involvement.
“If you want mass-scale adoption, I think regulation is a core part of that. And I think governments are starting to wake up to the fact that they have to do something now,” Davy-Martin said via the Financial Times publication Sifted. “It’s businesses like Polymateria that need to give them the solutions.”
Right now, Polymateria is still trying to get over the hurdle of cost. According to Sifted, the startup says there’s likely to be an addition of 10-15% to the cost of packaging.
And while recent research shows the majority of American consumers are willing to pay more for truthful, clear, and verified sustainable products, will companies do the same to make their pollution problem disappear? As argued by Davy-Martin, the cost “should not be material given the environmental upside.”