News

Interview: Biotransforming plastics with Polymateria

4 Dec 2018

Plastic pollution and the problems it causes have captured the world’s attention in recent years. From shopping bags caught in hedgerows, to accumulations of micro plastics in marine species, governments and businesses around the world have introduced new policies and legislation to deal with these issues: bans on drinking straws and tariffs of 5 pence on plastic shopping bags immediately come to mind.

Polymateria, a UK-based business with a focus on providing circular solutions to plastic pollution, has developed a new suite of drop-in technologies called biotransformation that deals with plastic pollution. Polymateria was the first company to join the Imperial White City Incubator when it opened its doors in October 2016, and has since grown rapidly, appointed new CEO Niall Dunne, bringing its first product to market in March 2018.

polymateria interview

Polymateria's CEO, Niall Dunne (centre) with members of the Imperial Innovations team

“Polymateria is looking to deal with what we call ‘fugitive’ plastic,” Niall tells me when we meet for coffee in the sleek, glass-fronted I-HUB building at the White City Campus. He brings his own cup with him. “That’s plastic which mainly comes from single-use food-safe packaging and which gets into the natural environment through littering and failures in the recycling chain.”

Mostly composed of polypropylene, polyethylene and polyester, these are widely recycled and recyclable plastics, but that doesn’t stop them getting out into the natural environment. “Polymateria is focused on biodegradation,” says Niall, “so when someone litters, or there’s a problem in a recycling facility, or a fox knocks over a bin, our technology can still remove these plastics from the environment.”

The company approaches this from two directions, making chemical and biological changes to plastic resins that allow them to be broken down through natural processes into their smallest component parts – “small enough that a bacterium could digest it,” says Niall. This comes from understanding the chemistry of plastics and their use in the market today, and also from knowing how to draw in “natural agents of change – fungi, bacteria, UV light and moisture. All of these play a role in biodegradation, but with standard production methods, when bacteria see a bit of plastic they don’t know what to do with it. We’ve learnt how to insert prebiotics into plastics and combining this with the chemical structure break-down that we also induce, plastics containing our technology can be biodegraded by the environment, avoiding any trace of microplastics.”

Polymateria’s location at the Imperial White City Incubator, situated at the heart of the Imperial College ecosystem, provides it with access to the scientific excellence it requires. “We sponsor PhD students at Imperial, and they bring new perspectives and new approaches into our research,” says Niall. “It’s a vibrant environment, and we’ve benefitted from it. We’re looking to work with the best thinking in the world, and it’s great that we can find that 50 or 100 metres from our office!”

The Incubator also plays a key role when the company talks to customers, according to Niall. “Customers love coming here. We’ve brought some of the biggest brands in the world to the Incubator, and I think one of the reasons that they’ve engaged deeply with Polymateria is not just that we’re doing something different and special, but because this place is different and special too.”  

Moving back to coffee cups, I ask about the fact that a lot of companies claim that their cups or packaging are biodegradable. Niall agrees that there is a lot of confusion about the language used to describe plastics and packaging, and Polymateria is working closely with standards bodies and international brands, open-sourcing their testing methods to try and improve claims and certification and simplify what can be communicated to consumers. A biodegradable coffee cup, he says, can be put in an industrial composting facility, but a customer can’t put it in their compost heap. “Just because it says it’s biodegradable, it doesn’t mean it’s like an apple core.”

Polymateria’s technologies solve this issue, and the idea of apple cores comes up a lot in their discussions with customers. “Among the materials we give to customers is a comparison between our materials and microplastic,” Niall explains. “In all of our R&D we’re aiming and striving for the most effective technology possible for our products to be biodegraded faster. The ideal goal would be as fast as an apple core, regardless of whether it’s on a grass verge or in a compost heap. This is a massive challenge, but our aim is to bring this kind of revolutionary innovative thinking to commodity plastics, in a way that is affordable and scalable.”

Niall sees Polymateria as contributing within a shifting global approach to plastic pollution. “Everyone hopes there might be a silver bullet, but there isn’t one for plastics. It’s going to take a lot of collaboration, among all parties – those who produce plastic, those who use it, and governments and regulators as well.” He mentions the fact that many consumer brands have signed up to long-reaching and ambitious recycling targets – unquestionably a good thing – but while they’re working to reach those, the situation remains that 30% of the plastics produced in a year get released into the natural environment. “So, if you make a lot of plastic bottles and you’ve signed up to a recycling target, you’re still dealing with the fact that customers are going to see your bottles get pulled out of the sea, or littered in national parks.”

Polymateria’s ambition is to develop the ‘new normal’ for plastic resins, so that when littering happens, the impact on the natural environment is significantly reduced. “You still need recycling. You still need the three ‘Rs’ of reduce, reuse and recycle,” Niall tells me. “But a technology approach that can address the holes in that system can be transformational.”  

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If you would like to get involved with Polymateria, the company is currently hiring and actively recruiting a laboratory technician with background in analytical chemistry to work on testing new iterations of its Biotransformation technology. The role will be based at Polymateria’s laboratories at the Imperial Incubator and be supervised by their VP of Innovations, Dr. Chris Wallis. If you would like to apply please send CV along with one-page application in writing with how you believe you meet the criteria to cp@polymateria.com by 11th January 2019.