Global plastic pollution proves a pressing issue.
A study showed that as of 2015, 8,300 million tonnes of virgin plastics were generated. Of this amount, only 9% has been recycled and only 12% incinerated, the vast majority at 79% discharged into the environment or sent to landfill.
The main culprits of said plastic waste are single-use, short lived products such as food and drinks containers, lids, cutlery, stirrers and straws. As plastic remains convenient and affordable, their continued use appears probable.
Yet plastic waste is uncommonly durable, with degradation taking anywhere from 20-1000 years on average. Coupled with the health and environmental risks of plastic leaking into the environment, the disposal of plastic packaging waste proves a perpetual crisis in the making.
Innovations in the field abound, however. Marking Plastic Free July 2021, here are a rundown of sustainable alternatives pioneered and employed by select companies in the fight against plastic waste.
Plant based Resin
As the likes of plastic straws and cutlery come in different shapes and sizes or are made of hybrid plastics, recycling is often rendered difficult. This is one reason as to why waste of this kind often ends up on landfills.
Initially, plastic stirrers were replaced by wood and straws with paper (think McDonalds!) yet were faced with customer opposition on account of their quick disintegration.
Utopia Plastix, a company that derives plant-based plastic solutions, developed a plant-based resin that is as durable as plastic but far more compostable.
The crops used to make the resin help capture carbon while stripping toxins from and adding nutrients to the soil. The resulting plastic, which is suitable for both high and low temperature applications, can be used by manufacturers to produce straws, cutlery and food packaging.
The quick growing plant has become an alternative material for toothbrushes, crockery and clothing as well as cutlery and straws. It also has its uses in the cosmetic industry, where bamboo supplies the part usually reserved for the plastic portion of cotton buds whilst finding its way into washable and reusable make-up remover pads. Bamboo as such is non-toxic, requires no pesticides and can degrade anywhere between three months to a couple of years, unlike virgin plastics.
Milk and Mushrooms
The food packaging industry, as espoused previously, are one of the main culprits of the plastic crisis. Styrofoam takeaway containers and coffee cups made from polystyrene, which are usually to light to render recycling economically viable, often end up on landfills.
Cartons and paper boxes have been posited as alternative solutions, but they require the use of carbon capturing trees to render them feasible. Also, a coffee cup requires plastic parts to ensure certain properties which, again, makes recycling difficult.
Mushroom based packaging made from agricultural waste, husks and oat hulls, pressed into shape and seeded with mushroom spores which sprout mycelium that binds materials together represents a compostable alternative.
Casein, a milk protein, makes for packaging that is 500 times less permeable to oxygen than conventional plastic and could serve to alleviate food waste by keeping food fresh for significantly longer time periods.
Plastic bottles make up a large proportion of total plastic waste. For the 2019 London Marathon, runners were given seaweed pouches filled with water instead of plastic bottles. As the pouches themselves were edible, this proved a sustainable solution. Coupled with the fact that seaweed production does not compete with food crops and degrades between four to six weeks, the applications appear promising.