|We’re sitting down with industry leaders, innovators and environmentalists to discuss what sustainability looks like today, and where it’s headed. Our April edition of this column features a chat with Okeanos Chairman Dr. Russ Petrie to chat about the best way to move toward a truly circular economy, and what areas Okeanos is focusing on to accomplish this goal.
What does a circular economy really mean? How is Okeanos working toward that ultimate goal?
A truly circular economy prioritizes responsible manufacturing, recycling, and re-use in order to extend the life of a single product.
In order to be effective, any solution needs to be economically attractive and scalable at a global level. At Okeanos, it was important for us to develop an international network and focus on cost so that the developing world can participate. We work with compounders, converters and brand owners to understand where source reduction and recycling fits within their sustainability policies.
Okeanos products reduce the amount of plastic in packaging at the source. In terms of recycle vs re-use where does Okeanos fall?
We believe industrial recycling has many benefits and are looking to making our packaging solutions fit within the current recycling framework, while at the same time looking forward to innovation and supporting improvements in recycling technology.
We understand that certain polymers can be recycled many times while others have limited ability for repeated recycling. Certain minerals, however, can be re-used multiple times industrially and by the natural environment in biological and non-biological processes, with little or no manipulation. This takes advantage of another circular pathway.
What is an immediate goal Okeanos is striving toward?
Currently, we still use a small amount of polymer in some of our solutions. Our goal over the next few years is to be able to swap that out for post-consumer polymer and reduce the use of virgin polymer and increase the use of mineral to displace polymer.
The combination of calcium carbonate and polymer can be difficult to do with post-consumer polymer as some post-consumer product results in highly variable properties. By using post-consumer polymer, we would create the circular component of packaging.
What are the advantages to using higher levels of Calcium Carbonate (CaCO3)?
The advantage of using higher levels of calcium carbonate is that CaCO3 can be re-used indefinitely, and thereby displaces plastic in the initial production of packaging and each succeeding generation. And in that sense, we are achieving the dual goals of source reduction and circular material use, while dramatically cutting the CO2 emissions for its production.
In addition, this means that we are using a sequestered form of carbon as significant ingredient in packaging and potentially decreases CO2 release compared to other forms of packaging.
Are there challenges to using CaCO3?
One of the challenges of using calcium carbonate is density and making packaging light enough that it will comply with current recycling guidelines. The density is also a benefit, as it provides great barrier properties including protection from oxygen, moisture, and light. Our patented technology allows us to achieve density parity in film and thermoforming, and we are working toward applying the application of that technology to injection and blown molding.
In terms of Innovation, what’s your main focus?
Our goal for the next 3 years is developing additional “binders” or resins, natural and synthetic, that have the ability to be easily separated from calcium carbonate by industrial and natural environmental means so that we can re-use calcium carbonate essentially indefinitely in industrial applications. In addition, should packaging end up in a landfill, open environment or ocean the calcium carbonate can be re-used by natural geologic or biologic processes. The difficulty is using a binder or resin that can degrade in highly variable environments.
Another essential component in developing a new category of technology is research. How does Okeanos approach this?
To achieve understanding of how current and future binders degrade in the natural world we want to engage research organizations to help with real environmental testing. The type of research we’re hoping to execute mimics real world environments more-so than current “certifications” which rely on methodology that in many situations is not applicable to the real world. For example, certifications test marine degradability of bio-plastics at 40 degrees C (104 F). This is not a condition likely to be found in the real world, where surface temperatures in the ocean average 16 degrees C (60 F)!