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Wednesday, May 15, 2024

This Plastic Phone Case Could Biodegrade Within 2 Years

Michael Pratt doesn't want to change the way you take out the trash. Instead, he wants to change what happens to trash when it ends up in a landfill or the middle of the ocean. 

Pratt is the founder of Pivet, a new company that makes smartphone cases. You might think it's a crowded field, however, not only is Pivet a Black-owned business in an industry that has shown little progress with diversity, but its plastic cases are also unusual. Unlike most plastics that take hundreds of years to decompose, Pivet's cases can biodegrade in around two years, according to the company. 

The plastic in Pivet's cases is embedded with a proprietary material called Toto-Toa. This material is comprised of natural and non-toxic ingredients, but Pivet wouldn't specify those ingredients as it's currently seeking intellectual property protection. This mixture purportedly speeds up the natural biodegradation process by attracting micro-organisms when the case enters microbe-rich environments, like landfills or oceans. (No, it won't start to biodegrade when you're still using the case.) These microbes colonize on the surface of the case and then break the plastic down into its raw components.

“We don't think that plastic is bad in general," says Pratt. "We think what happens to plastic in its end of life is where the problem is. When we're done with it, we have no idea how to properly dispose of it without harming the planet.”

New Materials

In the US, more than 90 percent of plastic is never recycled. So instead of simply making a recyclable phone case or one made with recycled materials, Pratt and his team developed the Toto-Toa material to avoid placing the burden of recycling on the consumer. Buyers can throw out the case as normal when it's no longer needed without worrying about harming the environment to the same degree. 

“We went after what we call the 90 percent problem instead of the 10 percent problem,” Pratt says. "Everyone has a phone or two and everyone's protecting that extremely expensive device. We're trying to create a solution here that allows consumers to continue the behavior they already have, but now make what they're doing an eco-friendly solution instead of changing consumer behavior.” If you prefer to go the more responsible route and drop it into a recycling bin instead of the garbage, Pratt says the cases are still recyclable. 

Wilhelm Marschall, Pivet's chief technology officer who has been researching the Toto-Toa material for the past four years, says it has been validated by Intertek, an international product testing and certification company, and has been tested to the ASTM D5511 and ISO 15985 standard test methods. These laboratory tests reproduced landfill conditions and found that after six months, a little more than 25 percent of the Toto-Toa-embedded thermoplastic polyurethane and polycarbonate, respectively, biodegraded. 

“The test data shows a consistent trend in biodegradation and if we take that trend and extrapolate it, we are able to predict that in a landfill environment, the material should fully biodegrade in under two years,” Marschall says. 

Better yet, Marschall says that unlike some compostable plastics like polylactic acid (PLA) or polybutylene adipate terephthalate (PBAT), the Toto-Toa material doesn't require a controlled environment to start biodegrading. And as Toto-Toa is bonded with the plastic, he claims the material doesn't leave microplastics behind after the biodegradation process. Microplastics are everywhere, from the ocean and rainfall to humans and even babies, though it's unclear exactly how harmful the pollutants are to our health.

Ocean Spotlight

To highlight the Toto-Toa material and its eco-friendly benefits, Pivet is partnering with The Ocean Agency, a non-profit organization that promotes ocean conservancy, and whose work is highlighted in the Netflix documentary, Chasing Coral. Starting today with World Ocean Day, a portion of every Ocean Blue Pivet Aspect case sold will go to the agency to support ocean conservation. 

It's a part of a broader outreach initiative from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization's (UNESCO) Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development that kicked off this year, of which The Ocean Agency is a partner. The initiative, better known as the Ocean Decade, aims to foster and strengthen ocean research, conservation, collaboration, and management to encourage sustainable use of its resources and reverse the ocean's declining health. 

“The idea is to put a spotlight on the ocean—it's the biggest global issue with the least support—at a governmental level in terms of sustainable development goals,” says Richard Vevers, founder and CEO of The Ocean Agency. “It's really about raising awareness and support for action, especially at the government level.”

The Ocean Agency isn't your typical charity. It partners with businesses to raise awareness for ocean conservation, like its 2014 Street View project with Google, which brought specialized 360-degree cameras underwater to capture coral reefs in stunning detail for anyone to view. By partnering with brands, Vevers says the agency is able to fund its various programs, such as raising ocean literacy, campaigning for ocean protection, and developing new camera technology for surveilling water environments. 

“Companies have the power, they have the audience,” he says. “It's really when you get brands on board that governments take notice. That's why it's so important that conservation organizations work with business. Often it's seen that you can't work with business because business is a problem and I absolutely believe that is totally incorrect. Business is where innovation happens; business is where the influence happens. If we're going to have mainstream support, we're going to need to work with business.”

Pivet's iPhone 12 Aspect case uses the Toto-Toa material and its new Ocean Blue color is inspired by corals that glow blue, yellow, or purple to survive underwater heatwaves due to climate change. Later this year and in the years following, Pivet plans to release more Ocean Blue cases and products while continuing to donate a portion of the proceeds to The Ocean Agency.

Some Skepticism

Biodegradable plastics and microbes that consume plastics are a hot research area, and Pivet is far from the only company working on solutions. Most recently, a startup called Polymateria created a plastic cling film, intended for uses like packaging, that can break down within a year and also be recycled. In 2020, researchers discovered super-enzymes that can degrade plastic bottles six times more quickly than before.

“The technology has been around for a long time, but through testing, I've managed to find the right balance of ingredients and the right balance of plastics," Marschall says. "You can't just make any plastic biodegrade, you have to tailor the ingredients or the technology to a specific plastic type. It's like baking a cake. Everyone's got the same ingredients, but because of your ratios and know-how, you can have a cake that tastes better than somebody else's cake." 

The Intertek lab results may have successfully shown degradation in landfill-like environments, but Marschall says the company is still in the process of finding testing companies that run saltwater tests. He theorizes the material will still biodegrade, though the process will take longer—especially if the case moves around a lot in the ocean. 

However, Kartik Chandran, an environmental microbiology researcher at Columbia University, says to take Pivet's lab results with a grain of salt. His reason? Real-life landfill conditions are far less conducive than an idealized lab environment.

“It doesn't take away from the fact that it's possible these materials are biodegradable," Chandran says. ”But to use those numbers from ideal lab testing conditions, I don't think that's appropriate." Still, Chandran says Pivet's lab-test biodegradation numbers are a good sign. “At the very least I'd say testing would have to be done under somewhat more representative conditions.” 

What confounds Chandran a little more is Marschall's claim that the case's biodegradation would leave no microplastics at the end of the process, particularly in the ocean.

“Let's say the case's surfaces are colonized by microorganisms,” Chandran says. “They are going to start consuming the material, and the breakdown would cause a reduction in the particle size. That involves breakdown into smaller particles, during which it could very well be feasible that micro and nanoscale materials would be released. I just don't get the jump of biodegradation to the non-release of microplastics.”

Wolfgang Zimmermann, a researcher of enzyme-related technologies at the University of Leipzig, Germany, says polycarbonate and TPU are very hard to biodegrade, but even if Pivet has discovered a material that can do it, he's confused as to why it's being utilized in phone cases first.

“Everybody's looking for such a material," Zimmermann says. “If they really came up with an interesting material, why restrict it to phone cases? You would go for the packaging industry and everybody would welcome it.” He quipped that making a bamboo cellphone case would be more environmentally friendly than a plastic case that still requires a microbe-filled environment to biodegrade. 

Biodegradable plastics aren't new—Chandran highlighted how Discover unveiled a biodegradable material for its credit cards in 2009. And Zimmermann says plastics such as the aforementioned PLA can do the job, though they have many downsides. For example, PLA can only biodegrade in industrial composting plants under the right conditions. The quality is also inferior to petroleum-based plastics—the material is brittle—and it's more expensive to produce. 

Both Zimmermann and Chandran acknowledge that if Pivet's claims are accurate, the company is moving in the right direction. Researching and developing new kinds of biodegradable plastics is one of two steps to reduce the world's ballooning plastic pollution problem, according to Zimmermann. The other? Increasing the amount of plastic we recycle.

Pratt says that Pivet eventually plans to use plastic collected from the ocean and other sources to create a “negative waste” phone case. Zimmermann casts doubt on this approach as ocean plastics usually contain polyethylene and polypropylene, which are reusable but very difficult to biodegrade. More alarming, at least to Chandran, is the generalized approach Pivet is taking in trying not to change consumer behavior. 

“If you were to be told there's this magic plastic-based product now that is entirely biodegradable in the environment, you know what that's going to do right? Everybody's going to throw plastic into their trashcan," Chandran says. "The unintended consequences need to be considered.” 

Regardless, Pivet's approach could inspire other accessory makers to explore other materials or to pour money into research for biodegradable plastics. As Zimmermann put it, at least it's "better than plastic."

“You can be both eco-friendly and concerned about the environment and still capitalist and still profitable,” Pratt says. “You just actually have to care and really want to do it. We started Pivet with the whole intention of doing stuff like this, and be able to make solutions that actually change the world around us.”

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