The LyfeCycle cup in the sand

Polymateria gives plastic an expiry date with LyfeCycle

Plastic waste leaves a path of destruction observable all across the planet. But what if there was a way to make it quite literally self-destruct?

While many plastics are often only used once before disposal, they can have an impact lasting centuries. Polyolefins are some of the most popular plastics in use, with varieties often used for their rigidity, which is attributed to the crystallinity of it on a molecular level.

Generation Y is the biggest generation on planet Earth, with 1.8 billion of them. They’re also the most curious, so they want to know something works, they’ll want to dig into the science, then once they understand, they’re real advocates for change.

– Niall Dunne, CEO Polymateria

Polyolefins are often used in the creation of objects including plastic straws, the bane of many marine creatures, but Polymateria has a solution to save us from a future where we risk drowning in plastic: LyfeCycle plastic, which can self-destruct and leave harmless by-products as it does.

The LyfeCycle of plastic

At the Ocean X Prix round of Extreme E’s inaugural racing season, there stands a mysterious box by the racer paddocks, sitting on the sand. It is emblazoned with a blue letter Y on the top which wrapped in a circle, much like the @ symbol. This symbol represents more than just the 25th letter of the alphabet: it represents the whole of Generation Y, otherwise known the Millennials; the generation of people born between the 1980s and 1990s, who came of age during the new millennium.

As Polymateria CEO Niall Dunne explains, “Generation Y is the biggest generation on planet Earth, with 1.8 billion of them. They’re also the most curious, so they want to know something works, they’ll want to dig into the science, then once they understand, they’re real advocates for change.”

The box in question is a cage with glass panels, a controlled experiment allowing air to pour in, but keep other environmental factors out. It is slowly filling up with an assortment of plastic cups inside. Throughout the Ocean X Prix, drivers, engineers have been drinking from these cups during the Ocean X Prix, each of which is printed with the phrase: “This cup will self-destruct – RECYCLE BY 2022.”

It may sound like something out of Mission Impossible, but the cups and the aforementioned box that contains them are to be part of the first experiment of its kind in the world: to see what happens to LyfeCycle plastic cups over the course of several hundred days, as they degrade and self-destruct. As they degrade, they are supposed to revert to a waxy state, before being consumed by micro-organisms.

Generations such as Generation Y are destined to come of age, to grow old and pass on into memory someday. Originally, plastic subverted this as an artificial product which just broke down into small pieces but persisted, and we have come to expect it to persist in our environment after many of us are no longer around to notice it. However, with LyfeCycle, the potential for plastic with a life expectancy of less than a year changes all of this.

Generation Y and all that follow them can potentially use plastic in a way which changes little about the way we use it on a daily basis, but an enormous shift in the way it responds with our environment, once we discard it and have no further use for it. LyfeCycle could help give life back to nature, where there was once nothing but mounds of inert plastic.

Back to nature

LyfeCycle cups are all part of an experiment which could revolutionise the way we consume plastic. As Niall Dunne explains: “We’ve never actually visualised it, so we don’t know what it will look like sequenced together, but we know the different stages.”

Setting a precedent, Niall’s team will be not only observing what happens when this type of plastic self-destructs, but they will also be the first to be testing the ecotoxicology (the effect of toxic chemicals such as plastic on living organisms) of such substances during the process of biodegradation.

“You can only really see the wax in the first three months”, Niall adds, “so they’ll start like a cup, but then they lose their structural integrity…like a paraffin. But then…we make that attractive to microbes and fungi. The 226 days is the time it takes for full biodegradation.”

Typically, polyolefins are some of the most inert of plastics when it comes to degradation. Polyethylene (PE), one of the most used polyolefins, can take 100 years to degrade by just 0.5 per cent, or by up to one percent if exposed to UV rays from sunlight for two years prior to biodegradation. When they do degrade, these plastics ‘shatter’, as the crystalline structure of the plastic simply breaks into smaller pieces, littering our environment with microplastic waste.

By comparison, LyfeCycle has pioneered in producing a plastic which is produced with a built-in longevity of less than a year. Niall tells us that the only by-products from a fully biodegraded LyfeCycle cup will be CO2, biomass and water. The first will be invisible to the naked eye, while the second could have uses as a form of fertiliser, pending ecotoxicology experiments.

The third, water itself, offers up a fitting gift back to nature: an apt parting gift from Polymateria the Extreme E racers during the Ocean X Prix, where the health of our oceans is under a fine microscope. The future of plastic could mean we give plastic a firm expiry date at last, rather than simply adding to the plastic polluting our waters.

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