The amount of plastic we produce to package consumer goods, especially fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) — packaged foods, beverages, toiletries — has reached an unprecedented level. We are draining our planet to produce these packages: plastics are made from fossil fuels and 8% of the worlds annual petroleum production is converted into making plastics.
On top of the environmental repercussions of the production process, most plastics produced for packaging FMCG are not recyclable, and even if they are, we don’t recycle them. Only 14% of plastic packaging gets collected for recycling which then goes through a sorting process and in the end, only 5% of all plastic is reintroduced to the production cycle.
There is no one single solution to the plastic phenomenon. On the one hand, the rate we’re producing and consuming plastics is destroying our living planet. On the other, plastic is a light-weight, durable and relatively cheap to produce material. It saves on transportation costs — both financially and environmentally — keeps food safe to consume for a long time, and allows us to produce solutions like malaria nets, which save lives for two dollars per net.
The complex problem of plastics needs to be tackled from all fronts. Yes, reducing one’s personal plastic waste is part of the solution but we also need to think about the larger picture. Plastic doesn’t just cover the garden tomatoes in the supermarket, it’s everywhere and anywhere.
Alongside consumer-centric solutions, there is also a growing need for designing new materials that can replace the plastic we can’t (and don’t) recycle. The new materials need to have all the positive aspects of plastic — durable, lightweight, cheap — and replace all the negative ones — made from fossil fuels, non-recyclable, and non-biodegradable.
Luckily for us, innovators from all over the world have been trying to replace/reinvent plastic for a while now, and it’s exciting to see the innovations coming up that are simple and promising at the same time.
Evoware is one such company that is producing a plastic alternative. The Indonesia based company produces eco-friendly, bio-degradable and even edible packaging solutions. Their packaging is seaweed-based which means it dissolves in warm water, is 100% biodegradable and it’s not only safe to eat it also contains good fibres, vitamins, and minerals naturally found in seaweed. And despite being edible and biodegradable Evoware’s products have a 2-year shelf life.
Another exciting plastic alternative is NUATAN, a new sustainable material developed by the design and research studio Crafting Plastics. According to the studio, NUATAN is “made out of 100% raw renewable resources, polymerised from corn starch and metabolised by microorganisms, and it is compostable”. It also supposedly has a lifespan up to 15 years and can withstand temperatures up to 110 degrees Celsius.
The designers currently produce value-added products made from NUATAN, like designer glasses, where the price doesn’t differ much from their non-biodegradable counterparts; but they are hoping that the demand for bioplastics can bring the price of production down so NUATAN can be used in industrial scale.
And this is the main problem of bioplastics. As promising as they sound, the two examples above (and many other plastic alternatives) are produced in small quantities and mostly on demand. The cost of production is currently higher than traditional, planet-destroying plastic thus it’s challenging to break into the very established production cycles.
However, this is also where the above mentioned multiple fronts come into the picture. The one thing that could — and does — convince big scale industries towards a switch is customer demand. So, reducing one’s plastic consumption might not have an immediate and statistically significant effect in the environmental battle but it does have an impact on the greater scale.
For example, recently The Guardian announced their switch to a potato starch-based plastic alternative for the packaging of their print edition. The packaging is completely biodegradable and dissolves within six weeks.
A few months before that, Lego launched sustainable bricks made from a plant-based plastic sourced from sugarcane. Explaining the launch as the first step in the company’s goal to go fully bioplastic in 203o, Tim Brooks, Lego’s Vice President of Environmental Responsibility said: “children and parents will not notice any difference in quality or appearance of the new elements”.
In the grand scheme of things these steps are quite minuscule and some might deem them frivolous, but if we keep sitting and waiting (and writing) for the ‘big’ change it’s highly unlikely to come out of nowhere. The future of plastic lies not in its complete demise but in its reinvention as bioplastics.
Source: The Forbes
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