Gen­tler plas­tic

The in­no­va­tion, jointly de­vel­oped in China, could re­duce the threat the ma­te­rial poses in seas across the world.

China Daily (USA) - - FRONT PAGE -

Wa­ter sol­u­ble, it could help cut ocean pol­lu­tion

Chilean busi­ness­man Roberto Astete has had the same dream for sev­eral years: used plas­tic cut­lery from a din­ner party is au­to­mat­i­cally sorted and fed into small grinders, af­ter which the de­bris is dis­solved in wa­ter in just a few min­utes be­fore be­ing flushed away.

“We wouldn’t need to col­lect, trans­port and dis­pose of plas­tic waste at spe­cial fa­cil­i­ties any­more. It could be pro­cessed eas­ily on-site to re­duce ocean pol­lu­tion,” he said.

Now, Astete’s dream is al­most a re­al­ity thanks to a new ma­te­rial and pro­cess­ing tech­nol­ogy de­vised by his part­ner com­pany in South China.

In late July, Astete’s com­pany Sol­ubag SpA and Polye Ma­te­ri­als Co, in Guang­dong prov­ince, jointly launched a se­ries of sol­u­ble shop­ping bags in San­ti­ago, cap­i­tal of Chile, just be­fore the Chilean gov­ern­ment en­acted a law that banned busi­nesses from pro­vid­ing cus­tomers with free plas­tic bags.

It takes cen­turies for petro­chem­i­cal plas­tic bags to de­grade in the ocean — in the mean­time they choke ma­rine an­i­mals and harm the en­tire ecosys­tem.

The bag in­tro­duced by the two com­pa­nies dis­solves in wa­ter quickly, and Astete even drank the mix­ture dur­ing a press con­fer­ence to en­dorse its safety.

Ac­cord­ing to Chen Gang, chair­man of Poly­rocks Chem­i­cal Co, Polye’s par­ent com­pany, the bag is made from mod­i­fied polyvinyl al­co­hol, aka PVA, which comes from nat­u­ral gas or cal­cium car­bide.

Bags made from PVA, a wa­ter-sol­u­ble ma­te­rial, are dis­played at a me­dia brief­ing in San­ti­ago, Chile, in July.

“PVA bags dis­solve in wa­ter in min­utes so they won’t choke ma­rine an­i­mals. The so­lu­tion will not pol­lute wa­ter or soil,” Chen said. “This al­ter­na­tive to plas­tic bags is eco-friendly.”

PVA has been used in paint, glue and tex­tile man­u­fac­tur­ing since the 1930s, and PVA film has also been widely used for pack­ag­ing in re­cent years.

How­ever, it was dif­fi­cult and costly to process the ma­te­rial into shop­ping bags be­cause of its lack of ther­mo­plas­tic­ity (pli­a­bil­ity when heated), said Cui Yue­fei, the bag’s in­ven­tor and a se­nior en­gi­neer with the South China Univer­sity of Tech­nol­ogy in Guangzhou, cap­i­tal of Guang­dong.

Cui spent years mod­i­fy­ing PVA in lab­o­ra­to­ries and com­pleted his ex­per­i­ments in 2008. By adding cer­tain agents, he made it eas­ier for the ma­te­rial to be pel­leted, blow-molded and made into bags.

In­dus­tri­al­iza­tion

His work caught the at­ten­tion of Poly­rocks, renowned for its fire-re­tar­dant prod­ucts, which was ex­plor­ing new busi­ness op­por­tu­ni­ties. In 2015, the two joined hands in mod­i­fied PVA in­dus­tri­al­iza­tion.

“In 2016, we were look­ing for a suit­able blow-mold­ing ma­chine in Dalian, North­east China,” Cui said. “That’s when and where we met Astete.”

The Chilean en­tre­pre­neur had spent two years scour­ing the world for a com­pany ca­pa­ble of, and in­ter­ested in, mak­ing af­ford­able wa­ter-sol­u­ble bags.

“I was in the plas­tics in­dus­try and I thought to my­self, ‘we can’t use petro­chem­i­cal bags any­more’,” Astete said. “I tried some Euro­pean and Amer­i­can man­u­fac­tur­ers first, but they showed lit­tle in­ter­est be­cause the profit mar­gin for shop­ping bags is very small. Then I came to China.”

Cui and Poly­rocks first fo­cused on bags that would be sol­u­ble in hot wa­ter, which would be more durable for ev­ery­day use. But Astete, com­ing from a coun­try with a long coast­line, in­sisted that the bags should be sol­u­ble in cold wa­ter.

“He helped us make this cru­cial de­ci­sion in prod­uct de­vel­op­ment,” Cui said.

A pro­to­type was pro­duced in just two months, and Polye Ma­te­ri­als was quickly es­tab­lished to ser­vice the project.

“The bags launched in San­ti­ago are our third-gen­er­a­tion prod­ucts. Their cost is about 1.5 times of that of a nor­mal plas­tic bag,” Cui said.

“We ex­pect them to be as cheap as nor­mal ones in our fifth gen­er­a­tion.”

Li Lingyu, gen­eral man­ager of Polye, said the com­pany’s an­nual pro­duc­tion of mod­i­fied PVA pel­lets will reach 10,000 met­ric tons by Novem­ber. “That’s about 500 mil­lion wa­ter-sol­u­ble bags,” she said.

Astete hopes the bags will hit the shelves in Chile by the end of the year, and he has been try­ing to per­suade his Chi­nese part­ner to open fac­to­ries in his home coun­try.

“Af­ter our press con­fer­ence, I got so many calls, and there are thou­sands of email in­quiries in my in­box. It’s crazy, re­ally, re­ally crazy,” he said.

“We need to fur­ther in­crease our ca­pac­ity. Eighty­five per­cent of the in­quiries are from out­side Chile, places such as Mex­ico, Ger­many, France and Spain.”

Polye and Sol­ubag plan to start a joint ven­ture in Hong Kong to deal with global sales.

A ma­jor threat

Plas­tic pol­lu­tion is con­sid­ered a ma­jor threat to oceans world­wide.

Dur­ing World Oceans Day on June 8, An­to­nio Guter­res, sec­re­tary-gen­eral of the United Na­tions, called on the world to stop plas­tic pol­lu­tion con­tam­i­nat­ing the oceans.

Eighty per­cent of all pol­lu­tion in the sea comes from the land, in­clud­ing about 8 mil­lion tons of plas­tic waste ev­ery year, which has re­sulted in the deaths of 1 mil­lion seabirds and 100,000 ma­rine mam­mals.

Be­sides Chile, Bri­tain is set to ban all sales of sin­gle-use plas­tics, in­clud­ing plas­tic straws and cot­ton swabs. Kenya and Morocco al­ready have sim­i­lar re­stric­tions.

“Bags are just the start. We can also use mod­i­fied PVA to make glass lids, straws and di­a­pers, and to re­place prod­ucts made from petro­chem­i­cal plas­tics,” Astete said.

“My coun­try is small but the peo­ple share a sim­i­lar goal — to have a beau­ti­ful, clean environment. It’s also the as­pi­ra­tion of all hu­man­ity.”

PHO­TOS BY CLAU­DIO REYES / FOR CHINA DAILY

Chilean en­tre­pre­neur Roberto Astete (left) stands with Oli­vares and drinks a so­lu­tion of wa­ter and dis­solved PVA to prove it is safe to con­sume the mix­ture.

A demon­stra­tion of how the ma­te­rial dis­solves in wa­ter.

En­gi­neer Chris­tian Oli­vares shows a sheet of PVA, which could help pre­vent eco­log­i­cal dam­age in the world’s oceans.

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