Could Sawdust be the Solution to the World's Plastic Problem?

Scientists are researching whether humble sawdust could be the solution to the world’s plastic problem. They believe the shreds of wood left over from logs that are turned into lumber can be used to make sustainably sourced recyclable bottles.

The scheme is being pioneered by Origin Materials, a company in Sarnia, Ontario. It has already attracted interest from major drinks brands, including Pepsi Co Inc, Danone SA and Nestle SA, who are aiming to sell water in the recyclable plant-based bottles by 2022.

sawdust

© nayneung1 / Adobe Stock

Making bottles from sawdust is one of a number of novel ways that scientists believe will help reduce the world’s plastic waste mountains. Other ideas include making plastic substitutes based on everything from sugar and corn, to seaweed and algae.

Alternatives to plastic

Origin Materials' founder, John Bissell, has spent ten years developing alternatives to plastic that won't affect climate change. He founded the company in 2008 and is a keen believer that everyday items such as bottles and garments can be made from new materials that will function the same, but without detrimentally affecting our planet.

Using plants rather than oil to make recyclable plastic absorbs harmful CO2 from the atmosphere. However, persuading manufacturers and consumers that petroleum-based plastics should be phased out is likely to be an uphill battle.

Major brands on board

Plant-based plastics are slowly beginning to enter the market, but it's a slow process. If the major beverage companies truly get on board with the sawdust-based bottles, this will make a huge difference. Nestle produces more than 1.7 million tons of plastic packaging every year, equating to more than 51 billion bottles.

It's estimated that Pepsi and Coca-Cola Co use even more than that. Coca-Cola tried out a supposed "plant-based" bottle ten years ago, but it was still 70% petrol-based. In 2016, Pepsi Co announced it was aiming to decrease greenhouse gas emissions by 20% by the year 2030.

Pepsi, Nestle and Danone are all part of the NaturAll Bottle Alliance, which is a body set up to find a way of reducing the carbon footprint created by drinks bottles. By the end of 2020, once Origin Materials' Ontario plant is fully up and running, they plan to buy 100% plant-derived bottles. The company aims to produce 300 million bottles per year at first.

Manufacturing process

They have discovered a method of extracting cellulose from wood waste. Cellulose is used to manufacture the hydrocarbon, para-xylene - a product usually derived from oil. It is used to make the common plastic, PET.

As plants and trees capture CO2 naturally through photosynthesis, using sustainably sourced wood chips is believed to offset any pollutants released during processing. However, critics of the scheme have asked what happens to the plant-based bottles when they have been used? After all, not all of them are biodegradable! Unless they are recycled (and on average, only 20% of bottles are recycled), they will invariably end up on landfills.

Pros and cons

Bio-based bottles have the advantage over oil-based plastics when they are incinerated, as the carbon stored within them is released, but sceptics say the new materials aren't resolving the real problem: improving the rate of reusing plastic packaging and persuading the producer to collect the waste.

Critics also say that if the production of plant-based plastics increased significantly, more land would eventually be needed to grow the plants, and this would affect agriculture, cause the loss of biodiversity and accelerate deforestation.

Bearing these concerns in mind, although sawdust might be a solution to the problem of waste plastic, it might also create different problems of its own in the long run! However, it's apparent that the trend for plant-based plastics is taking off: London-based skincare manufacturer, Bulldog, sells its products in tubes manufactured from sugar cane.

Even toy maker Lego began trialling some pieces made of plant-based plastics in boxed sets. These quite fittingly included Lego trees, bushes and leaves.

Solent Plastics provides storage boxes that are durable and long-lasting, so they can be used time and time again. We don't produce single-use plastic products.

We also stock a range of recycling waste bins to help businesses, schools and individuals to organise their own recycling schemes.