Niall Dunne says that humanity will solve our climate-related problems through massive, grassroots, bottom-up movements. He believes that sports, followed by 65-70 percent of humans, must play an important role.
After leading BT’s climate-focused Go 100 Percent initiative, Dunne reentered the Sports-Climate world as CEO of Polymateria, a British startup that is pioneering biodegradable and compostable cups and other products used at sports events.
GreenSportsBlog talked with Dunne about his journey and the possibilities for Polymateria to use sports to make a difference in the climate fight.
GreenSportsBlog: Lots to talk about, Niall. Let’s start with your work in the Green-Sports…actually the Climate-Sports space.
Niall Dunne: Sure, Lew. I was with BT in 2015 and we were in Paris at the Social Good Summit which was part of the UN Conference that ended up with the signing of the landmark Paris Climate Agreement.
You know what? We can argue if the Agreement is meaningful enough but in a very important way, Paris worked: It showed that grassroots organizing all over the world could result in a positive outcome.
BT wanted to show the same thing through an initiative we launched at that Social Good Summit called 100 Percent Sport.
Our approach was to employ the bottom-up, grassroots energy of fans. We did this by engaging athletes to encourage fans to switch from fossil fuels to renewables and for teams to power their venues with 100 percent renewable energy.
GSB: Where did you go from there?
Niall: Well I left BT in 2017, more energized than ever to be an agent of progress on achieving UN Sustainable Development goals on responsible consumption (SDG #12) and climate (#13). Meanwhile, Jonathan Sieff, whose family had started Marks and Spencer, founded Polymateria in 2015. He wanted to understand why efforts to address the plastic waste issue had largely failed to that point. His way to address the problem was to bring new scientific approaches to scale..I thought, ‘Ah, this is what I should be doing!”
Plastic pollution really speaks to me. The problem so universal and there weren’t any obvious silver bullets to solve it.
GSB: How big is the plastics problem?
Niall: Well, about 320-330 million tonnes of plastic enters the environment every year, with 40 percent going to landfill, 14 percent is recycled and 14 percent goes into waste-to-energy. The remaining 32 percent ends up in the natural environment as waste.
So we decided that the best way to disrupt this seemingly intractable problem was to change the composition of plastics so they can degrade safely and return to nature.
GSB: So Polymateria set out to make better compostable plastics?
Niall: Actually, Polymateria’s goal is to develop a new standard in biodegradable as well as compostable plastics. That is due, in large part, to the leakage, the inefficiencies inherent in recycling. Only about 14 percent of what is recycled is truly circular. The rest is either too contaminated and is thus waste. Or, it is not pure enough and so it is downcycled, with more waste entering the system.
Our technology allows for our products to be recycled in circular fashion by a date certain. If not, it starts to safely biodegrade. By doing so, we’ve introduced “shelf life” into packaging.
GSB: WOW! When did Polymateria go to market?
Niall: After about five years of R&D, we launched in January 2018 with time-stamped, biodegradable trays, cutlery and cups.
We were very intentional with the products we decided to launch. We wanted a tangible way of putting science, our science into the hands of real people. To make you a part of the solution.
Did you know there are five billion cups at music festivals every year?
GSB: I had no idea.
Niall: That’s the number. So our idea was to ask people, fans at music festivals…
GSB: …or sports events?
Niall: Exactly! Our campaign is “Recycle By”. We ask those fans who would take home a souvenir cup from an event, to pick a date — a date that would mean something to them — by when they would recycle the cup. We want the fan to make an emotional connection with the act of recycling. It’s empowering.
GSB: And if they don’t recycle the cup…or the cutlery or the plate, it will begin to degrade, kind of like “The Wicked Witch of the West” melting? By when?
Niall: That’s it. The product will start to degrade at the expiration date, which is about 18 months from its entry into the system.
Niall Dunne and the actress Robin Wright with Polymateria’s “Recycle By” cup at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival (Photo credit: Polymateria)
GSB: I’m having trouble wrapping my head around how this happens?
Niall: Without getting too into the weeds on this, our polymer scientists, chemists and biologists designed our products so that a chemical transformation of the polymer structure starts to break apart the product at the expiration date. And there’s a prebiotic effect that tricks nature to attack the product as if it was food. There are no microplastics in our products.
GSB: It’s almost like there’s a microchip embedded in Polymateria products to get them to biodegrade.
Niall: I like that analogy. This took a massive effort. Our VP of Innovation, Chris Wallace, spent four years understanding and perfecting “Biotransformation.” We are leaders in this space — we have two patents and several others are filed.
GSB: This is very impressive. How is the market responding to Polymateria? And how are you spreading the word?
Niall: Very well. Our brand, Cycle +, is becoming the Intel Inside of the biodegradable packaging world.
Big packaging companies are our biggest customers. And they can have the biggest impact. Clariant Packaging is a great example. They are big players in Southeast Asia, which of course has a plastic waste crisis.
“Recycle By,” the idea of putting power to make a difference on the environment in the hands of people, is starting to catch on. Celebrities are supporting us — they really want to help us. Robin Wright used our cup at the Cannes Film Festival.
GSB: How does sports fit into the Polymateria mix?
Niall: Sports, with its massive following and social power, will be an important sector for Polymateria. We’re developing relationships with teams, leagues and athletes. And we’re thinking about how “Recycle By” can live in sports.
Imagine “Recycle By” cups at the Super Bowl! I believe the sports media will cover the “Recycle By” story once we have scale at stadiums and arenas.