Mark Herrema and Kent Kimmel have moved onto my list of visionaries to watch, thanks to an article in USA Today. They know how much we rely on plastic. They also know carbon emissions are a major problem. They put their thinking caps on and figured out a way to use the latter to create the former.
And none too soon. I’m not alone in my unthinking reliance on plastic. Within arm’s reach of my computer, and including things like pens in plastic housings, I count 50 objects with significant plastic content.
Uh-oh. I forgot all the cords and the earplugs I keep in my computer so as not to disturb my partner when I listen to something. That is a sobering tally since every pen, device and doodad represents a helping of fossil fuels that took millennia to create. Besides that, all these plastic items have a shelf life that makes them a horrendous legacy for the next generations.
Herrema and Kimmel teamed up to try to do something about the environmental costs associated with plastic and carbon and climate change. They wanted to design an affordable process that would mimic what plants do for us in pulling carbon out of the air. Here is what they came up with, along with a company called Newlight Technologies to produce it:
Inspired by carbon-capturing processes found in nature, Newlight has developed, patented, and commercialized a thermoplastic manufacturing technology that separates carbon from air to produce a carbon-negative material called AirCarbon.
AirCarbon replaces the oil normally used to produce plastic. The plastic made with it can be recycled into other objects, and it can be formulated into biodegradable grades. Of course, that means it can also be formulated into non-biodegradable grades, which means the plastic produced with it can still end up a long-term challenge.
Still, the idea of removing carbon from the air and using it to replace oil in plastic production holds promise. It is only one part of the solution to too much carbon in the atmosphere, of course. As Harvard physicist David Keith pointed out to USA Today, the supply chain cannot absorb all the carbon the U.S. pours into the atmosphere each year (more than 15 tons per person).
No one solution can be expected to solve such a gargantuan problem, but AirCarbon addresses a piece of it, and that gives me hope.
Learn more about Newlight Technologies:
- Newlight expands bioplastic packaging technology
- Newlight Technologies turning air into plastic (video)
- Newlight turns greenhouses gases into high-performance biodegradable plastic