From plastic soup to sustainable toothbrushes

The number of developments for clearing the oceans of plastic waste is growing. As is the number of applications for the material that gets fished out. While at the same time, durable, reusable products with biodegradable components are increasingly finding their way onto the market. Some examples.

Reducing the mountain of waste

Recently, the 20-year-old Dutchman Boyan Slat won the United Nations’ Champions of the Earth prize for an invention that can filter plastic from the oceans. His system consists of two V-shaped arms that float on the surface and drive the plastic particles together where they can be easily collected. The young scientist used crowd funding to build better prototypes of his system, which could be put into use in only a few years. In ten years, it could clean up almost half the waste in the Pacific Ocean.

Recycle the plastic

But what is to be done with all that waste? Recycling is the answer, as has already been proven by so many projects. And new initiatives keep on coming. One example is Raw for the Oceans, which is a collaborative project for transforming plastic from the oceans into denim for fashionable clothes. Recycled polyester and nylon are manufactured from post-consumer and post-industrial waste such as PET bottles, clothing and nylon fishing nets.

Carpet manufacturer Interface - a big name in the business of implementing circular economics - has joined forces with the Zoological Society of London to develop carpet tiles made of recycled fishing nets. The project - Net-Works - doesn’t just take the raw materials from the polluted waters and coasts of the Philippines, it also creates jobs for local people in the small fishing villages. The company buys the washed-up and discarded nets collected by the local population and then turns the nets into floor coverings.

The company had previous experience with recycling from the construction of a sailing boat made entirely from plastic bottles and other up-cycled plastics. The boat crossed the Pacific Ocean, passing the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, in order to demonstrate the potential and value of plastics meant for one-off use.

Avoid non-recyclable plastic

And because prevention is sometimes better than a cure, more and more sustainable products are coming on to the market that avoid creating waste in the first place - such as re-used or longer-lasting plastic bottles or the Goodwell Company’s smart toothbrush. This toothbrush is the company's response to the enormous mountain of cheap plastic disposable toothbrushes that find their way every year not just to landfills but also to the seas and oceans. The toothbrush is made of durable materials - surgical grade aluminium, biodegradable bamboo composite and Binchotan - a natural charcoal fibre.

This aluminium-handled toothbrush is designed to last a lifetime, although the parts made of compostable composite, including the floss holder and tongue scraper, need to be replaced every few months for hygienic reasons. These parts can simply be put on the compost heap after use. Replacement parts are available through a subscription service. The brush hairs consist of Binchotan, which is also a biodegradable charcoal fibre. This is mainly used in Japan at the moment but is attracting interest for the production of toothbrushes because not only does the fibre have a deodorising effect, it also stops the brush hairs from becoming breeding grounds for bacteria and viruses.

What’s more, the developers have released the CAD data for the attachments so users can develop their own accessories and exchange design ideas. There is even a traceability system under development for the toothbrush that will be synchronised with a website and, later, with the Apple Health app. This toothbrush comes with a lifetime warranty.

Even toothpaste (and other body care products) often contain microplastics. These have already been banned in some American states, including Illinois, and there are moves to introduce this ban in others, such as Ohio. These additives consist of small synthetic (PE) particles that have an abrasive or scrubbing effect. Currently, more than 100 products on the market contain these particles. To give some idea of what this means, a single 125 ml jar of facial cleanser might contain 356,000 of these "microspheres". These particles cannot be broken down naturally and are often too small to be completely removed by water treatment plants, so they end up in lakes, rivers, seas and oceans. They appear to cause internal blockages in birds and fish and can also absorb pollutants, which they then carry through the food chain. They are small enough to be absorbed by plankton.

Some large manufactures have already agreed to remove the microspheres from their existing products and not to use them in new ones, possibly by replacing them with biodegradable alternatives. Nevertheless, it might be several years before there are significantly fewer of these on the market.

Anyone who would like to know more about the circular economy has the opportunity on 11 February to attend the workshop ‘How to truly eco-innovate in the lighting industry?’, where keynote speaker Anton Brummelhuis, Senior Director of Sustainability at Philips, will expand on this topic in his lecture 'From design for recycling to circular economy strategy at Philips'.