When it comes to environmental issues, it’s mostly climate change that dominates the headlines these days. Since it’s the greatest existential crisis of our times, there’s good reason for this. However, when it comes to damaging environmental problems that are imperilling both our lives and those of the animal kingdom right now, plastic deserves just as much publicity.
The use of plastics is a huge, and hugely harmful, problem, and one that with focussed effort could actually be solved relatively quickly. But change has been slow, and the longer we wait, the worse the situation becomes.
Despite efforts to change consumer mentalities, our society’s reliance on plastic – for packaging, transport, utensils, appliances, toys, and so much more – has barely diminished. Even a sustained push towards recycling hasn’t helped, with only an estimated 9% of all plastic produced being reproduced. The rest is either incinerated, put in landfill, or ending up dumped into our fragile ecosystems, with devastating results for both the environment and the humans that live in it.
It’s clear that we need to stop using plastics entirely. But what are the alternatives?
Why is Plastic So Harmful?
In order to understand why we need alternatives to plastic, and what properties we need from our alternatives, we need to look first at exactly what makes plastic so harmful in the first place.
Plastic takes over 400 years to degrade properly. Since plastic has only come into use in the last six to seven decades, that means that all of the plastic ever produced (and which hasn’t been recycled or incinerated) is still around, with a horrifying amount of it ending up in our natural environment. In fact, it’s currently estimated that by the middle of this century, there will be more plastic by weight than fishes in our oceans.
Whole bits of plastic can choke and injure all manner of wildlife, from turtles to birds, who can’t recognise it as an unnatural, lethal product. At the same time, as plastic degrades, it releases so-called “micro plastics”, tiny plastic particles which can be swallowed or breathed in and cause damage to the bodies of both animals and humans, and to many smaller organisms in the ecosystem. Scientists are, even now, yet to fully document the scale of the destruction that micro plastics cause to both the world we live in and our own bodies.
The lifecycle of plastic is also incredibly harmful in a couple of other ways:
- The majority of plastics are made from fossil fuels and therefore support the fossil fuel industry, the primary contributor to climate change
- Incineration, a common way of disposing of plastic, releases toxic chemicals into the air and atmosphere
So what if we want the convenience of plastic, but in a far more sustainable form? Let’s look at some of the most promising alternative to plastic available today.
Using wood instead of plastic is actually much more eco-friendly that it might seem, especially when the wood in question is bamboo. Since bamboo grows (and re-grows) incredibly quickly in a wide range of environments, and without the labour-intensive care that other crops require, cultivation and production is simple, cost-effective, and a commercially viable alternative income for many developing economies.
At first glance, bamboo may not seem to have the flexibility and pliability of plastic as a material. But it’s not just whole pieces of the wood that can be shaped. By breaking it down into fibres and weaving them together, bamboo can, in fact, be turned into a durable textile that’s suitable for a number of products normally made with plastic (or water-intensive cotton) like shopping carrier bags, table coverings, and even clothes!
Read More: Let's Talk About... Bamboo
Bamboo isn’t the only naturally growing alternative to plastic. One innovative company, Ecovative, has turned to another source for an equally resilient and flexible material: mushrooms.
Not any old mushroom, of course. These specific varieties of mycelium, the root-like part of the mushroom, not only provide improved durability, but need much less space to grow than bamboo. In fact, they don’t even need to be grown outdoors, meaning otherwise unused urban spaces can be repurposed instead of existing land.
Ecovative has also developed one of the world’s largest fungus libraries in their search for the most suitable strain, and in the process developed Styrofoam-like packaging used by major companies across the world.
Read More: Can Mushrooms Replace Plastic?
With life in our oceans most at risk from the harmful effects of plastic, it is perhaps poetically appropriate that it can also provide an excellent sustainable solution to the problem.
Seaweed farming, primarily for the health and food industries, is already a transformational path to prosperity for many developing nations with abundant coastlines. Further utilising this harvested seaweed for plastic packaging makes these projects even more financially fruitful, especially when you consider that it can grow up to three metres per day and requires no water or fertilizer at all, reducing overhead costs – and strain on the environment – considerably.
Both agar, which is extracted from red seaweed, and brown seaweed are currently used to make this new generation of bioplastics, and both already grow abundantly in the wild. In fact, it’s estimated that a mere 0.3% of brown seaweed currently in the oceans could provide enough plastic to replace all the plastic bottles in the world. Even better: plastic made from seaweed takes only a little over a month to biodegrade completely, and in some cases is even edible itself!
Read More: In 2018, Seaweed Is The New Plastic
Plastic from Natural Waste
Although minimised in the case of seaweed bioplastics, one downside from these first three alternatives is that resources and space are required to grow the materials in the first place. That’s why many innovators are looking to an even more sustainable solution: transforming existing organic waste and by-products into a usable and effective material.
Packed full of the starch and cellulose needed to form durable bioplastics, banana peels are one of the most ideal candidates for conversion from waste to utility. Not only that, but we discard an astonishing amount of them: it’s estimated that Thailand alone throws out about 200 tons of peels every single day.
Despite their potential, banana peels were completely overlooked as a possible source of alternative plastic. In fact, it took a 16-year-old science student from Turkey to take a leap of faith and develop the first prototypes – an astonishing achievement that shows that all it takes is a little determination and the right mentality to change the world.
Known as marc or pomace, the residual waste from wine production is another source of cellulose and starch that can be used for making alternative plastics. These skins and seeds, which are left over after pressing the juice out of the grape, can be reused to make oils, animal feed, and spirits, but are often just simply discarded.
By itself, marc isn’t perfect for making bioplastics. However, it is readily combinable with another bioplastic, Polylactic Acid (PLA), forming a superior mix that has better biodegradability and reduces the strain on the environment (as PLA still must be extracted from sugar or corn).
You could probably argue that we humans don’t deserve our oceans. Despite all the horrible things we do to them, they still remain beautiful gifts that keep on giving. A case in point: one of the best current solutions to the plastic problem is the natural waste that comes from straight from those bountiful waters.
A combination of fish scales, skin, and red algae, can produce a strong and highly durable bioplastic (that biodegrades in a month) suitable for a wide range of applications. All of this can be found in the sea or collected as waste from fish processing plants, who would otherwise send it to landfill. Not only that, but forming the bioplastic requires very little energy and only low temperatures – in fact, the graduate student who developed the technology did most of her experimentation on her own kitchen stove.
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