Our planet is in the midst of a plastic waste epidemic. Researchers estimate that more than 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic have been produced since the early 1950s. About 60 per cent of that plastic has ended up in either a landfill or the natural environment.
Some of the practical applications of plastic cannot be denied, especially in areas such as medical treatment and food preservation. The problem is that many uses of plastic are unnecessary, especially single-use products that have replaced viable reusable alternatives. This is a major issue, considering only 9 per cent of plastics have been recycled.
Much of the plastic that is discarded enters the natural environment, disrupting ecosystems and endangering wildlife. While traditional alternatives such as metal and glass should be utilized, new materials have entered the market that are better for the environment and have the potential to help us end our plastic addiction.
A new report from UN Environment explores the huge variety of plastic alternatives that have already sprung up. We’ve pulled out a few of those options here.
Growing sustainable packaging
Mycofoam was developed by the company Ecovative as an alternative to expanded polystyrene, or EPS, the white foam that has become the material of choice to protect products during shipping, especially food and electronics. Mycofoam is made from agricultural waste that is placed into moulds and mixed with live mycelium fungus, which essentially grows the material into a finished shape that can be dried and used as a stable packing material.
Like traditional EPS, the material is impact resistant and can be formed into a variety of shapes to suit a customer’s needs, yet it biodegrades in nature and is made from renewable resources. Already companies have used it to replace EPS, including Dell Computers, which have used Mycofoam to help their production line become 94 per cent waste free.
Manufacturing textiles with milk
As strange as it sounds, milk has been used to make plastics since the early 20th century. Using a chemically intensive process involving the casein protein found in milk, early plastics manufacturers used the material for buttons and synthetic fabrics, however it quickly fell out of favour when new petroleum-based forms of plastic emerged in the 20th century.
Since 2011 German entrepreneur Anke Domaske, with her company QMilch, has been using a modified form of this technique to create sustainable textile fibres from milk that would otherwise be wasted. Domaske simplified the old process of creating casein plastic, and pioneered a method that uses significantly less chemicals and produces a durable biopolymer with a multitude of uses, especially in the garment industry. And because her company sources old milk from producers that would otherwise throw it away, the entire supply chain benefits the environment.
A leather alternative made from pineapple fibre
As versatile as it is, not everyone can wear leather, whether it be for moral, environmental, or economic reasons. Artificial leather has long been produced as a cheaper alternative, but the process of creating it from fabric and plastic is unsustainable. Piñatex, manufactured by the London-based company Ananas Anam, is an environmentally friendly and durable alternative made from pineapple leaves.
Because no additional resources are needed – pineapple farming results in lots of leftover leaves – the entire process fits within a sustainable, circular supply chain and provides additional income to farmers. After harvest, farming communities in the Philippines collect the discarded leaves and extract the fibres from them, which are then processed into a mesh and sent to a factory in Spain for finishing. The final product is then shipped directly to designers and manufacturers, who are already using Piñatex in the production of shoes, bags and furnishings.
A key strategy for stopping the flow of plastic waste into the environment is curbing our consumption of single-use products. This is especially true in the restaurant industry, which in recent decades has seen a marked increase in the use of plastic plates, straws and cutlery.
Enter Bakeys, which was founded in 2010 by Narayana Peesapaty. The Indian company has developed a simple yet groundbreaking alternative to plastic utensils, edible spoons made from sorghum flour, an energy efficient and resilient crop commonly grown in South Asia, Africa and Central America. The spoons are durable, easy to eat, and come in three flavours: plain, sweet and savoury. While at the moment they are available only in India, the company is looking to increase production and begin competing with plastic cutlery.
Plates and bowls made from leaves
Plant leaves have a long history of being used as plates in communities around the world. While this method of food consumption worked for much of human history, single-use plastic plates and bowls have made their way into markets that previously utilized the natural resources around them. To counter this trend several companies are using old technologies to create new types of disposable plates and bowls that don’t harm the environment.
One such company is Leaf Republic, a Germany-based start-up that sells food packaging produced in the method of traditional Indian Patraveli plates. The plates and containers – which replace the plastic-based clamshell packaging commonly found in restaurants – are stitched together from leaves, pressed and then dried.
Little Cherry is another company that is promoting a sustainable but profitable alternative to plastic. The UK-based business sells party supplies derived from the leaves of the areca palm, which are left over during the production of betel nut in India. While the materials used are different, both are examples of how traditional materials can be repurposed sustainably in the 21st century.
#BeatPlasticPollution is the theme of World Environment Day 2018.