You’ve no doubt seen the photos and videos—the mountains of plastic waste and plastic in our waterways and oceans—stuff that lasts for centuries. Closer to home, we see it littered along the roadsides on our way to work or the store. Hopefully, we’re not headed towards the “Great Garbage Avalanche of 2505,” as seen in the film “Idiocracy.”

Wouldn’t it be nice if all that plastic waste could just disappear—decompose into simple carbon compounds—go back to the earth? While it won’t vanish any time soon, a new plastic technology developed by a startup company, Radical Plastics, has created a plastic resin that—depending on composition—can have a “preprogrammed” time to return to basic nonthreatening carbon compounds. For its efforts, the company was the 2018 national winner of the Cleantech Open and runner-up in New York state’s 76West clean energy business competition.

Radical Plastics Cofounders Yelena Kann and Kristin Taylor have extensive backgrounds in polymers and plastics engineering, both having worked for major chemical companies in the past. CTO Kann’s PhD and MS are in polymer technology, and she has over 25 years of experience in industry and academia, with more than 20 patents/applications and 30 or more published papers. 

CEO Taylor has a MS in plastics engineering with more than 20 years in market development for commodity engineering and bio-based/biodegradable plastics. She has career experience with ExxonMobil, Metabolix Bioplastics and Sabic (formerly GE Plastics). 

While strides have been made over the last decade toward creating biodegradable plastics, including starch-based resins, Radical’s invention is a radical departure (excuse the pun) from previous technologies. 

FE: Tell us how Radical Plastics got started.

Kristin Taylor: Yelena and I worked together at Metabolix, a bioplastics company in Cambridge, Mass. We learned through that experience that any biodegradable plastic solution had to have the same properties as regular plastic, had to be recyclable and had to be economical. Bioplastics typically have inferior properties and have generally been too expensive to gain widespread traction. So Yelena was seeking a catalyst she could use to break down regular plastics. In 2017, she found a patent on this fine mineral matter and its use as a soil conditioner. She looked at the chemistry and realized that she could use it to develop a catalyst that would break down plastics. She made some plastic mulch film using just 1% of this matter and laid it out in her garden over the summer. In the fall, she collected the film, folded it up and put it in an envelope in her basement. She found it several months later and the film had degraded to fine, waxy flakes. That was the aha moment that started Radical Plastics. She filed for a patent in early 2018, and we officially started the company on 11/1/18.

FE: What was your vision in developing the new material?

Taylor: Our vision was to find a drop-in replacement for conventional plastics that didn’t persist in the environment for hundreds of years. We wanted to create something that had the same physical properties and could be run on the same processing equipment with minimal adjustment. And of course, it had to be recyclable and cost effective. 

FE: How does the technology work? How does the material break down?

Yelena Kann: If products made from the Radical Plastics compound are exposed to the environment, our patented catalyst initiates a free radical reaction, which reduces the length of the long polymer chains and inserts oxygen groups along the backbone of the polymer. This turns the material into a low molecular weight biodegradable wax that microbes in nature recognize as food. They metabolize the material turning it into biomass, CO2 and water. There are trace amounts of minerals left over from our catalyst. These are naturally occurring transition metals such as iron, copper, manganese, etc. that are healthy for the soil. There are absolutely no heavy metals or elements of concern in our material.

FE: How do you determine how long it takes the material to decompose? 

Kann: We are conducting third-party respirometry testing in compliance with the European standard, EN 17033. This standard states that the material must degrade in outdoor conditions within two years, matching the degradation time of natural materials like leaves and roots. The test measures carbon conversion from polymer to CO2 as microbes consume and metabolize the material. We are also designing grades which include proprietary degradation inhibitors. This will allow us to offer plastics that have a service life of two months up to two years before degradation begins.

FE: Does it work with more than one type of plastic formulation?

Kann: This technology could potentially work with any of the polymers made through addition polymerization – polyolefins, acrylics, styrenics, etc. But right now, we are focused on polyolefin materials – polyethylene and polypropylene. Polyolefins account for approximately 60% of the plastic waste that exists in the environment, and this is the bulk of the material sold into agriculture and flexible packaging.

FE: How does it differ from starch-based products?

Kann: Starch-based materials are biodegradable; however, their properties are inferior to conventional plastics. Mulch films made from starch, for example, tend to be more fragile and moisture sensitive, so they can be difficult to handle and hard to apply to the fields using conventional equipment. They’re also made at relatively small scale, so they’re much more expensive than conventional plastic mulch films.

FE: Could you tell us a little more about its potential packaging uses?

Kann: The majority of flexible packaging films are polyolefins—potato chip bags, overwrap films, bread bags, bottle labels, etc. But many people don’t realize that many cardboard containers like ice cream tubs and milk cartons are also coated with plastic. This makes them nondegradable. Our material could also be used for thermoformed containers like yogurt cups and deli containers. Nonwovens used in wipes and fibers used in netting are also potential applications.

FE: What has been the response from plastic/film users, e.g., packaging machine makers?

Taylor: The response has been amazing. People are looking for better, more environmentally friendly alternatives that are easy to use and cost effective. 

FE: What are the tentative release dates for films or other products?

Taylor: We expect to launch a resin grade suitable for agricultural film in mid-2020. This will be followed by packaging films in 2021. Other applications are in the pipeline but will follow these two critical markets.

FE: Are you looking toward any partnerships?

Taylor: We are definitely looking for partnerships in the agricultural space as we work to validate this new technology. We are also talking with folks across the plastics supply chain who see this as a game changer for our industry.

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