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As more people learn how bad plastic waste is for the environment, a debate has emerged. Should we replace plastic with natural materials that degrade over time? Or should we just stop throwing away so much stuff? NPR's Christopher Joyce reports.
CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: Stephen Mayfield is a chemist who figured out how to turn algae into raw plastic - polyurethane plastic. At his lab, he turns it into stuff people want.
STEPHEN MAYFIELD: What are the most important polyurethane products on the planet? Well, if you're from UC San Diego, those are surfboards.
JOYCE: Mayfield works out of what looks like a machine shop on the University of California campus. He started with surfboards, and they got him some attention. But it was a surfing trip to the Maldives Islands in the Indian Ocean that persuaded him to make something else. One day, he asked his local hosts to take him to their most remote island. They said sure.
MAYFIELD: And when I got to the windward side of the island, it was covered with dead flip-flops.
JOYCE: Flip-flops - footwear for much of the world's population. Made of rubber or plastic, they had floated there on ocean currents from, presumably, all over the world.
MAYFIELD: And it was so sad to get there and think, this - really? This is what we've done to the planet.
JOYCE: So Mayfield now makes flip-flops from algae. What makes them special is that they degrade if left out in the environment. Chemist and fellow surfer Suri Sherman is the polyurethane chef in Mayfield's lab. He shows me how it's done.
SURI SHERMAN: I, basically, mix up a bunch of chemicals and say, oh, a little bit of this, little bit of that - just kind of, like, cooking.
JOYCE: He swirls some syrupy liquid in a can.
SHERMAN: Right now I'm adding in a polyal.
SHERMAN: Gooey - this comes from algae.
JOYCE: Sherman adds another chemical. It's a two-step process, like mixing epoxy - adds a catalyst and blends it all in the mechanical spinner. The final step - pour the stuff into a mold and bake it for 20 minutes or so. Then pry it out, and you've got a flip-flop sole. Mayfield says there's some traditional petroleum-based polymer in there as well, but all of the shoe will biodegrade into harmless materials. It just needs the right bacteria and moisture to break it down.
MAYFIELD: You throw them in your compost pile, and they will disappear at about 3 1/2- or 4% per month, meaning that within two years, that shoe will completely be gone.
JOYCE: Two years potentially as trash isn't perfect, but Mayfield says it's better than decades or even longer. But the real problem, he says, is that new technology is a tough sell. Manufacturers are reluctant to take a risk on a new, unfamiliar product. So what about changing people instead of the product - changing their behavior, that is?
TOM SZAKY: I think the evil isn't plastic. It's using something once.
JOYCE: Tom Szaky is founder and CEO of TerraCycle in Trenton, N.J.
SZAKY: I mean, there was advertisements in 1950 that talk about, you don't have to wash your dishes anymore. Simply take the whole thing - the cutlery, the dishes, the tablecloth itself - and throw it all out.
JOYCE: Szaky wants consumers to abandon the throw-away mentality and learn to reuse things, in particular packaging - the largest source of plastic waste. TerraCycle is running a pilot project called Loop. Here's how it works. A company puts its products, say, shampoo or toothpaste, into custom-made sturdy containers - glass, metal or plastic. Loop packs them into a picnic basket-sized tote bag and ships it to you. You use up the stuff, then UPS picks up the tote bag full of empties and ships it back to TerraCycle. The containers get washed, refilled and sent out again. Szaky calls it unconscious behavior change.
SZAKY: In Loop, we're trying say it feels like throw-away. But instead of throwing it away into a landfill or throwing it away into a recycling center, it's going into a reuse facility.
JOYCE: That facility is in a warehouse in Trenton. Boxes of consumer products line the walls. Marketing director Heather Crawford pulls out a few.
HEATHER CRAWFORD: Snacks, trail mixes, raw nuts, etc.
JOYCE: But not in the usual plastic pouch - instead packed into a cylindrical, metal container.
And this is dark balsamic vinegar.
JOYCE: There's shampoo, hand lotion, juice.
CRAWFORD: This is an interesting one. This is a REN prestige skin care in glass bottles.
JOYCE: There's even ice cream in special, insulated, metal containers, frozen down to -41 degrees.
CRAWFORD: The very last thing to go into the tote.
JOYCE: Loop says the ice cream will stay frozen for up to 30 hours while it's being shipped. Big companies like Procter and Gamble, Nestle and Unilever are participating in this experiment. They refill the containers. Loop handles the transport and cleaning. Crawford says Loop has tens of thousands of customers signed up. They pay a deposit on each container, which they get back when they turn in.
CRAWFORD: Consumers are so well-aware of the waste crisis. And they're genuinely looking for a solution and something that they can actively participate in.
JOYCE: So far, Loop is a boutique operation. And Szaky acknowledges they're challenging huge, well-established industries.
SZAKY: Who are the losers in Loop, right? It's the waste management industry because less stuff will end up in their bins, which will make it - their income go down.
JOYCE: And also, the oil, gas and chemical industries that now manufacture billions of dollars' worth of plastic stuff from food packaging to flip-flops. Szaky says, ultimately, it will be the customers who will decide the future of plastic.
Christopher Joyce, NPR News.
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