Our planet is in the midst of a plastic waste epidemic. The researchers estimate that more than 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic have been manufactured since the early 1950s. Nearly 60 percent 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 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 significant issue, considering only 9 percent 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 is better for the environment and can help us end our plastic addiction.
A new report from UN Environment explores the wide variety of plastic alternatives that have already sprung up. We’ve pulled out a few of those options here.
Growing sustainable packaging
Ecovative developed Mycofoam as an option to expanded polystyrene, or EPS, the white foam that has enhanced the material’s opportunity to protect products during shipping, particularly food and electronics. mycofoam is created from agricultural waste placed into molds mixed with live mycelium fungus, which develops the material into a completed shape that can be dried and used as a permanent packing material.
Like traditional EPS, the material is impression resistant and can be formed into different patterns to suit a customer’s requirements, yet it biodegrades in nature and is produced from renewable resources. Companies have used it to substitute EPS, including Dell Computers, which have used Mycofoam to develop their product line to become 94 percent waste-free.
Manufacturing textiles with milk
As unfamiliar as it sounds, milk has been used to make plastics since the early 20th century. Using a chemically intensive process involving the casein protein located in milk, early plastics producers used the material for buttons and synthetic fabrics; though, it immediately fell out of favor while new petroleum-based kinds 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 fibers from milk that would otherwise be wasted. Domaske simplified the old process of creating casein plastic and pioneered a method that uses significantly fewer chemicals and produces a durable biopolymer with many 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 fiber
As versatile as it is, not everyone can wear leather, whether for moral, environmental, or economic reasons. Synthetic leather has long been produced as a cheaper option, but the process of building it from material and plastic is unsustainable. Piñatex, produced by the London-based company Ananas Anam, is an environmentally helpful and durable option made from pineapple leaves.
Because no additional resources are needed – pineapple farming results in lots of leftover leaves – the entire process matches within a sustainable, circular supply chain and provides extra income to farmers. Following harvest, farming communities in the Philippines collect the discarded leaves and extract the fibers from them, which are then processed into a mesh and sent to a factory in Spain for finishing. The final product is then dispatched directly to designers and producers, who are now using Piñatex in the creation 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 remarkably accurate in the restaurant industry, which has seen a marked increase in plastic plates, straws, and cutlery in recent decades.
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, energy-efficient, and the resilient crop is usually grown in South Asia, Africa, and Central America. The spoons are durable, simple to eat, and come in three flavors: plain, sweet and savory. While 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 deep 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, various companies are using old technologies to produce new types of disposable plates and bowls that do not harm the environment.
One before-mentioned company is the Leaf Republic, a Germany-based start-up that sells food packaging produced in old Indian Patraveli plates. The plates and containers that replace the plastic-based clamshell packaging commonly found in restaurants are stitched together from leaves, pressed, and 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 leftover 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.