27 Jan 2017 Story Environment under review

Innovation abounds in plastic substitutes, but it’s behaviour change that will save our seas

It might have been the ubiquitous image of Peanut the turtle with a six-pack ring wrapped around its middle that did it: its shell bent horribly out of shape as it grew to accommodate the plastic belt in which the creature had the misfortune of getting caught.

Whatever inspiration prompted a brewery in the United States to create completely edible six-pack rings last year that would feed ocean life rather than strangle it, they are one of the latest in innovative solutions around the world to combat the most persistent source of marine litter: plastic.

Made from barley and wheat ribbons from the brewing process, the rings are 100% biodegradable and edible, meant to be safe to any animal whose paths the rings happen to cross.

It brings to mind the edible cutlery that emerged last year in India, made of sorghum flour blended with rice and wheat, that even come in flavours: plain, sweet or savoury.

The edible theme continues in Egypt, where this month scientists are working on a polymer to be made into grocery bags, derived from the organic compound chitin, found in the shells of shrimp, crabs and lobsters.

Also kicking off 2017, the same people who in 2015 brought the world “eco ponchos” (inspired by the throwaway ponchos used by motorcycle drivers in Bali, Indonesia), came biodegradable and compostable plastic bags that you could dissolve in hot water and drink.

Drinking one of his plastic bags, made of cassava starch, vegetable oil and organic resins, the creator of the bag, local surfer and entrepreneur Kevin Kumala, explained: “I wanted to show this bioplastic would be so harmless to sea animals that a human could drink it.” According to him, it “passed an oral toxicity test” and left no toxic residue.

There is no silver bullet to the plastic epidemic

The World Economic Forum warned last week that there would be more plastic than fish in terms of weight in the world's oceans by 2050. About 280 million tonnes of plastic are produced globally each year, and only a small percentage is recycled. About 13 million tonnes of the rest ends up in the world's oceans, costing several billion dollars per year in environmental damage to marine ecosystems.

Over the past 20 years, enterprising individuals, companies and researchers have created a huge variety of biodegradable and/or compostable plastic substitutes, trying to hit that sweet spot of retaining the desirable qualities of polymers while posing no harm if accidentally released into nature.

It is estimated the alternative “plastic” product industry will be worth US$3.4 billion by 2020 and could capture up to 20 per cent of the plastics market over the next decade.

Heidi Savelli, of UN Environment’s Global Partnership on Marine Litter, warns that while innovations such as plastic substitutes are important, we must not forget the only solution to overcoming the plastic epidemic we face is a fundamental change in behaviour.  

“There are no quick fixes. Innovation is necessary and while we should definitely work on it, it shouldn't make us lazy. The most urgent challenge is to reduce our reliance on plastic, particularly single use plastic items.”  

The UN Environment report "Biodegradable Plastics" cites research that suggests some people are attracted to “technological solutions” as an alternative to changing behaviour.

“Labelling a product as biodegradable may be seen as a technical fix that removes responsibility from the individual, resulting in a reluctance to take action,” said Savelli.

Sounding the warning on “biodegradable” and “compostable” plastics

The bioplastics industry is still nascent and rapidly changing, and although labelling efforts exist, there can be disparities in the definition of “biodegradable” or “compostable”, making way for costly mistakes and exploitation by opportunists.

“Until there is an internationally agreed definition of biodegradability in the marine environment, the adoption of plastic products labelled as ‘biodegradable’ will not bring about a significant decrease either in the quantity of plastic entering the ocean or the risk of physical and chemical impacts on the marine environment,” Savelli said.

To add to that, the process of biodegrading can take up to five years, during which time the item can find its way into the ocean. One example, “oxo-degradable” plastic, which is enriched with a metal to oxidize and help break the plastic down, is reduced to fragments, essentially microplastics, which in turn can be swallowed by sea creatures and help transport harmful microbes, pathogens and algal species.  

Also, some materials that are compostable on land in certain conditions, for example, requiring temperatures of 50 degrees Celsius, are unable to biodegrade in the sea. Then there’s the issue that “compostable” can mean “compostable in commercial composting facilities”, but not in garden composting contexts.

Bioplastics also cannot be recycled and if mixed with recyclable plastics, can contaminate the process. Sadly, most “biodegradable” plastic bags still end up in landfill, where they break down slowly and add to methane emissions.

On the production side, some of these technologies are also more carbon or resource intensive than what they’re meant to be replacing.

So, what’s the bottom line?

Innovation is necessary and desirable, but the most important thing is to transition out of our lazy, “throwaway” mindset that has got us into hot soup to begin with. It’s changing our behaviours, choices and actions that will save our seas, and the most urgent challenge right now is to get a whole lot better at how we manage plastic.