Why Machine Learning and Molecular Biology Could End Our Reliance on Plastic

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Globally, humans produce over 330M tons of plastics, of which only 9% is recycled. Polyolefins, the most dominant form of plastic used in almost every daily consumer product we interact with, degrade slower than almost any other man-made material, taking decades, if not centuries, to degrade. Meanwhile, they shed microparticles into the soil, air, and oceans, affecting almost every ecosystem in the world. To make matters worse, plastic production also produces CO2, the primary greenhouse gas emitted from human activity, at a rate of 6kg CO2 per kilogram of plastic.

In 2018, NewtonX issued a survey of global green construction leaders, scientists, and activists and gave a sample of the findings in this article on carbon emissions in the construction industry. This year, NewtonX issued a new ‘green’ survey, this time with leading climate scientists as well as with lead biologists at companies that are doing materials discovery and optimization, and VCs investing in these companies.

The survey revealed that as the general public increasingly questions our reliance on plastics, companies are investing in naturally produced polyesters and new materials that are not reliant on traditional petroleum-based manufacturing.

The Unicorns Leading the Materials Discovery Industry

Materials use affects almost every single industry on the planet: from cars, to computers, to gym bags, to kitchenware, the impact of a materials production revolution would be incredibly far reaching. Because of this, companies including Zymergen ($400 million in Series C funding led by SoftBank), and Citrine Informatics ($7.6M in Series A) are leveraging AI and Machine Learning to conduct biological analysis for materials discovery.

Startups (and VCs) aren’t the only ones interested investing in materials discovery. IBM said that it plans to use Watson for materials discovery in the next decade, and Harvard University has entire labs devoted to materials discovery. While all of these materials discovery players have found new materials, none so far have discovered a material that is a commercially viable alternative to plastic: one that needs to be cheap, biodegradable (or at least recyclable), and easily operable.

Plastic is ubiquitous today for two reasons: it’s cheap to produce and easy to manipulate for products. Conceivably, however, there are other materials with the same benefits plus an added one: more easily recyclable and biodegradable.

The Materials Discovery Future Customers: Why Companies Like LEGO and Ikea Are Trying to Ditch Plastic

Globally and domestically, regulations are increasingly trending toward dictating that companies meet standards for certain percentages of materials used being recyclable or recycled. This will make single-use plastics less ubiquitous: companies will need to rethink the way they not only manufacture, but also the ways in which they package products.

As single-use plastics are phased out, this will provide a new opportunity for disruptive companies offering recyclable plastics and alternative materials. These options have existed for years (in 1880 a bioplastic made from milk protein was developed!) but the challenge that companies like Zymergen will solve is making the alternatives more affordable.

In the meantime, large companies that use plastic for product manufacturing are already looking for solutions. The LEGO group, for instance, established the Sustainable Materials Centre in 2015 to look for sustainable alternatives to plastic. Similarly, Ikea has pledged to remove all single use plastic products from its global products by 2020. Meanwhile, researchers are exploring two types of plant fibre additives for the construction industry to reduce CO2 emissions and find sustainable materials for the industry.

That said, legacy systems will make full adoption of plastic alternatives difficult. Even as policy shifts and companies look for alternatives, we are a long way from divesting ourselves from plastic.

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About Author

Germain Chastel is the CEO and Founder of NewtonX.

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