CO2 Plastic: A New Circular Carbon Solution?

New technology hopes to combine two of the most environmentally damaging substances to produce a product that could redefine how we view waste CO₂ and how negative plastics are for our world.

Colourful Plastic waste

Since its creation in 1907, plastic has been one of the most influential man-made materials ever produced. Plastic popularity soared in the early 20th century, praised for its durability, flexibility, versatility and the abundance (at the time) of petroleum from which it is derived.

It completely revolutionised life and was essential in products everywhere, from medicine to industry to the home. Today you can find plastic everywhere; in fact, you’re probably reading this article right now through a plastic screen. The demand for plastic has been so high that an estimated 9.2 billion tonnes were made between 1950-2017.

Plastic Bakelite Phone
One of the earliest plastic products, the iconic Bakelite telephone.

However, this popularity has led to a dark reputation in recent years as the damaging nature of plastics has come to light. The qualities that made plastic so popular in the first place, such as its durability and petroleum basis, are what makes this material so harmful.

The dense chemical structure of plastics results in a product that is almost impervious to natural decomposition and the petroleum extraction and manufacturing process pollutes our atmosphere. The astronomical demand for plastic and irresponsible disposal practices have left the world covered in its waste. The figures are troubling:


Plastic Waste on a beach

From human and animal health issues to atmospheric pollution to ecosystem destabilisation and economic losses, plastic waste and production’s socioeconomic and environmental impacts are substantial and pervasive.

Just because the world has realised plastic is so harmful doesn’t mean it no longer needs it. Plastics are incredibly useful and are fundamental to the manufacture of countless products. They cannot just be abandoned. Plastic use reduces transportation costs, facilitates clean drinking water supplies, improves the cost and performance of construction materials and is significantly more resource efficient than most other materials. The issue is not just plastic but the feedstock it uses and the efficacy of disposal and recycling methods. This dilemma has motivated a fast-growing area of research: environmentally positive plastics.

A Bio-based alternative?

One of the most promising areas of development was bioplastics. These plastics are made from renewable biomass sources, typically recycled food waste, vegetable oils or woodchips. It sounds like an ideal solution; however, the idea hasn’t fully taken off. In reality, many of the benefits of bioplastics, such as a reduced carbon footprint and improved biodegradability, are not as perfect as they seem. Many production processes for bioplastics are not as carbon efficient as their fossil fuel counterparts.

Additionally, recycling can be problematic as it may raise the cost of sorting waste, decrease overall yield and even manufacturing costs and material performance remain an issue. All these obstacles have hampered the replacement of fossil plastics with their renewable counterparts. As of 2018, only around 2 million of the 250 million tonnes of plastic produced annually were bioplastic and nearly all were used for packaging. To replace the entire fossil-plastic production output, around 100 million hectares of land would need to be dedicated to the industry, equivalent to 7% of the total arable land on earth.

Nonetheless, bioplastics are still important and in the right context, they’re still an improvement on petroleum-based plastic but their fate is likely to be more niche than was originally hoped for.

A New Era of Plastics?

In a form of poetic justice, research into new technologies is revealing that CO₂ can be utilised to make renewable energy and low carbon footprint materials. One of the most ground-breaking developments is the invention of carbon-neutral concrete which is set up to play a major role in curbing the colossal emissions generated by the concrete industry.

CO₂ polymerisation is a process in which CO₂ can be used to provide the raw carbon needed for plastic production. A leading academic in the field of carbon capture and utilisation, Prof. Peter Styring believes the future of CO₂ polymerisation will be influential, ‘Instead of using fossil fuel as the feedstock, you can turn the industry on its head by using waste carbon dioxide by using chemical tricks – this will revolutionise the petrochemical sector’.

The solution would be impressively circular, removing excess CO₂ from the atmosphere or capturing it directly from industrial processes and turning waste into beneficial products. The manufacturing process for CO₂ polymers would not only use less fossil fuels, but it would also remove harmful greenhouse gases from our environment. The new polymers could even be carbon neutral, with as much carbon captured in the material as embodied in the production process.

There are currently 5 main methods in which to develop CO₂-based polymers. The most auspicious of which uses a catalyst (a substance that accelerates the speed of a chemical reaction). CO₂ can react with a particular chemical group known as epoxides to form a copolymer (polymer derived from multiple monomer species). This chemical synthesis can produce various plastics such as nylon, foams, coatings, elastomers, sealants and adhesives.

Econic Technologies uses a process just like this to incorporate CO₂ into their polyols. Their catalyst technology allows them to tailor the CO₂ content in their plastic and make products that contain up to 50% of their weight in CO₂. They even met with Bill Gates and Rishi Sunak earlier this year to discuss the potential of their Carbon capture technology. Econic is not the only brand attracting attention for its CO₂ derived plastics. Covestro, a German materials company, teamed up with RWTH Aachen University to develop a product they call Cardyon. Cardyon is a polyurethane alternative that has been put to the test in some interesting applications, such as a binder for sports flooring.

Hockey pitch made from plastic
Hockey pitch made using Cardyon CO₂ plastic. Ⓒ Covestro.

Current Standpoint

The outlook for CO₂ polymers is positive. The circularity potential of direct carbon capture using CO₂ feedstock is very high and the successful development of low-carbon polyurethane alternatives bodes well for broader applications in the future. As a testament to this success, The CO₂ based polymer market is projected to grow rapidly between now and 2028. Nova-Institute, a private research institute whose notable customers include Total, Ford, Nestle and Deloitte, have released a report on CO₂ feedstock in which they outlined how ‘Renewable Carbon is the Key to a Sustainable and Future-Oriented Chemical and Plastic Industry’.

Inevitably, there are still issues with CO₂-based polymers. Many of the successfully developed polycarbonates are only suitable for a limited range of applications and high strength, high durability options cannot be produced on a large scale. Economical and optimal catalysts for the reaction are also hard to find and significant carbon footprint reductions are not yet commonplace. The positive is that these issues will likely be temporary as more catalysts and new conversion routes are being frequently tested. The advancements we’ve seen in the last decade are already significant and refining CO₂ polymerisation for mass production and wider applications is more a question of time than possibility.

As with all emerging materials, the other side of the battle remains at a developer/manufacturer level. There are already products on the market and whilst further research and development are needed for major market infiltration, facilitating the use of existing CO₂ polymers can be achieved by promoting their advantages and raising awareness.

This is where Firstplanit can help. By using our product lists, impact indexes and personalised planning, you can work out which materials would benefit your project most and how you could implement them. Firstplanit can help you find sustainable alternatives to baseline market materials with ease and calculate the costs and environmental impact of your project. Our platform promotes and facilitates sustainable construction practices as we strive toward a healthier planet.

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