Redefining sustainability with antimicrobial solutions for plastics
Redefining sustainability with antimicrobial solutions for plastics
Exclusively for K-MAG
Copyright: Fabrika Photo
Plastic is one of the most versatile materials on earth, replacing steel in cars, paper in packaging, and wood in furniture. Its revolutionary discovery has led to the development of diverse, flexible and cost-effective materials that have influenced all areas of our lives, and made previously unattainable products more economical and available to all. However, in the last few decades, the reputation of plastics has been tarnished by the environmental threat predominantly associated with single-use, disposable products that cover landfills and pollute our oceans.
Plastic pollution has become one of the most pressing environmental issues in recent years, as the rapidly increasing production of disposable plastic goods overwhelms the planet’s ability to deal with them. In fact, the world produces 381 million tonnes of plastic waste yearly and 50 percent of this is single-useplastic products.1 At this rate, it is estimated that there will be 1.3 billion tonnes of plastic waste present in the environment by 2040.2 One way to tackle the issues surrounding plastic disposal is to encourage consumers to reuse products for longer, and an element of that is to address the public's concerns regarding the cleanliness, appearance and durability of the many items we encounter every day.
A hidden barrier to reusability
Microorganisms are capable of adhering to plastic surfaces and, given the right environmental conditions, they will survive, grow and replicate to create visible discolouration, unpleasant odours and physical damage that leads to early product degradation and disposal. Some plastics also contain high levels of plasticisers, which can act as a carbon-rich food source for bacteria and fungi, rendering them particularly susceptible to penetration and colonization by these microbes. In line with sustainability agendas, plastic manufacturing has begun transitioning away from using synthetic phthalates to plant-derived alternatives, as they are often considered 'greener' However, it seems that plant-sourced plasticisers – such as epoxidized soybean oil (ESBO) found in some PVC food packaging – are especially vulnerable to microbial attack.
On top of this, a recent Multi-sponsor survey revealed that 72 percent of people are concerned about exposure to bacteria in their everyday lives. As a result, cleanliness and disinfection are top priorities for many of us, but the harsh household cleaning chemicals and scrubbing actions that we use can also contribute to early degradation and wear-and-tear, causing products to be disposed of prematurely, regardless of their cleanliness. Regular disinfectants also only offer limited residual activity once applied to a surface. This means that, as soon as a product is used again, it becomes re-contaminated with microorganisms. Consumers are usually aware of the visible damage that microorganisms can cause to their plastic belongings, and when these products become stained, smelly or damaged, most people will simply throw them away – because they can be cheaply replaced – contributing further to the plastic pollution crisis.
Novel solutions for a modern problem
Minimising or even preventing microbial contamination within the plastics themselves is a remarkably effective and comprehensive approach that can overcome these challenges. Antimicrobial chemistries have been developed that can be incorporated into a range of synthetic materials and surfaces at the point of manufacture, so that they become an integral component of the material to provide ongoing protection that works 24/7 for the lifetime of the product. Built-in antimicrobial protection reassures consumers of the cleanliness of surfaces, and helps to prevent degradation and odours caused by microorganisms, lengthening the lifespan of a product and preventing it from being discarded prematurely.
Copyright: Anna Stills
There are certain plastic products that have persistently high loads of bacteria due to their use. For example, inadequately cleaned food-contact surfaces, such as chopping boards, kitchen utensils and food storage containers, will often contain leftover food residues and particles that provide an energy source for microbial growth. This growth quickly causes the plastic items to degrade and become stained and smelly, meaning consumers typically throw them away early in favour of new and fresh products. Additionally, items left in humid, warm or damp environments – like shower curtains – provide the ideal setting for bacteria and moulds to flourish. Shower curtains often succumb to unsightly fungal growth as a result of constant exposure to moisture, soap and skin deposits. Incorporating antimicrobial product protection into these widely used plastic items would reduce the likelihood of premature disposal due to stains, odours or even damage from overcleaning, lengthening their useable lifespan and further reducing plastic wastage in both domestic and hospitality settings.
Microbes on plastic surfaces sometimes gain the upper hand simply because the items are difficult to reach or clean. For example, many of us now spend a considerable amount of time in vehicles, yet we often neglect the cleanliness of the interior of our cars. This is because certain fixtures are inaccessible – such as air conditioning hoses – or are easily damaged by strong chemicals and constant scrubbing. Embedding antimicrobial technologies and coatings into different vehicle interior surfaces – including car seats, steering wheels and armrests – would keep our cars cleaner in between cleaning. This not only prolongs the aesthetics and performance of key surfaces, but also helps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by encouraging higher levels of car sharing.
Leading the way to an environmentally friendly future
Plastic is a vital component of many of the goods we use on a daily basis, and has become a substance that we simply can't live without in today’s world. Unfortunately, the high rates of premature and single-use plastic disposal can also cause damage to the environment. With global plastic wastage growing at an annual rate of 9 percent2, more and more businesses are seeking ways to make their plastic products reusable and longer lasting. Growing consumer awareness of microbial contamination has also prompted manufacturers to look for smarter, cleaner and more durable innovations that will simultaneously offer enhanced product protection against harmful microbes. Sustainability initiatives can be supported by use of greener built-in antimicrobial technologies that keep surfaces cleaner for longer and extend the lifetime of each product, promoting reuse and helping to stem the tide of plastic waste entering landfill and our oceans.
1: Condor Ferries. Shocking Ocean Plastic Statistics: The Threat to Marine life, The Ocean & Humanity. Available here. Accessed 20th June 2022.
2: Seed Scientific. 51+ Disturbing Plastic Waste Statistics . Available here. Accessed 20th June 2022.
About Microban International
Part of Barr Brands International (BBI), Microban International is home to the most trusted and well-known global brands in the antimicrobial, odour control, and sanitisation / disinfection markets – Microban® and Ultra-Fresh®. The organisation drives innovation by combining science and creative solutions that enhance high-quality consumer, textile, industrial and medical products around the world. Today, the Microban and Ultra-Fresh brands and technologies are featured on thousands of products worldwide. The company is headquartered in North Carolina with operations in North America, Europe, and Asia Pacific. For more information, please visit the website of Microban.
Kimberley Cherrington, International Marketing Manager, Microban International
K-MAG, the online magazine of the world's leading and most important trade fair for the plastics and rubber industry. News, opinions, pictures, films, interviews and much more from and for the global K community. Because K sees itself as a global communicator for innovations and trending topics. Not only every three years with THE live event of the plastics and rubber industry in Düsseldorf. The K-MAG is a continuous information and inspiration platform for the industry. It’s more than a trade fair – it’s a channel of communication. According to this principle, we offer informative and interactive exchange on industry-relevant topics.