Is plant-based plastic the answer to the world’s plastic problem?

Beyond the Curb


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Everything works best at a balance. The universe, our planet, the world around us as well as the world inside us rely on balance to keep functioning well.

In a perfect world, that balance would never be disturbed. In the real world, however, changes occur and sustainable solutions, which take into account people, the economy and the environment, are necessary to avoid, or at least minimize, the disturbance of that balance.

Since perfect balance is not always easy to achieve, settling for a good compromise — a better option instead of the best option — is an honorable goal, especially when trying to tackle wicked problems such as the world’s plastic problem.

“It is estimated that up to 129 million tons (43 percent) of the plastic used per year is disposed of by landfill or incineration, and approximately 10 to 20 million tons of plastic ends up in the ocean.” [Source: Packaging Digest].

Despite those numbers, Tom Szaky from TerraCycle writes, “manufacturers and consumers alike are now accustomed to products and packaging made lighter, less costly and more convenient by plastic” so there is resistance in moving away from plastic.

Like any wicked problem, the battle to reduce plastic is no different of a challenge.

Then, how can we compromise and still use some material similar to plastic, but with lower negative impact on the environment?

To replace or reduce the use of petroleum-based plastic, manufacturers created a plant-based plastic, or bioplastic, that uses biomass such as corn or sugarcane. Given that from all oil consumed in the U.S. about 10 percent is used to produce plastic, this type of change would help reduce our reliance on fossil fuel.

Besides that, this change incorporates the positive aspect of using more natural, non-toxic (BPA-free) ingredients which derive from renewable resources and require less energy to produce, release less greenhouse gases in the process and, under the right conditions, might be biodegradable or compostable.

Those are all positive aspects, but if we look at what it takes to produce plant-based plastics we might find that they might not be as environmentally friendly as one would think.

Since it is sourced from plant material, as demand increases, more land will be needed to grow crops and more crops will be needed to satisfy demand. That might result in an increase in deforestation and a negative impact in actual food production. In addition, because of its low melting point, the use of plant-based plastic is limited — “some plant-based plastics turn into puddles just from being left in a car on a sunny day.” [Source: HowStuffWorks], and because of its different composition, plant-based plastic cannot be recycled — unless it is the durable kind which is part plant- and part petroleum-based.

These are the tradeoffs we face for trying to keep using single-use disposable plastic. To curb those issues, a few companies went a little further to offer innovative alternatives to single-use: instead of disposable, edible.

Bakeys (bakeys.com), an Indian company founded in 2010 by Narayana Peesapaty, supplies edible cutlery and chopsticks made from natural ingredients. Designed out of Peesapaty’s concerns about shortage in water supplies, unsustainable agricultural processes, and the growth of single-use plastic discards, the product line follows a “from dirt to dirt” principal and, if not eaten, it will easily decompose.

As an example closer to home we have Saltwater Brewery (saltwaterbrewery.com), the company that created biodegradable, edible six-pack rings. Located in Delray Beach, the company makes rings from a by-product of the beer-making process that can be chewed off and eaten. The goal is to avoid harming marine life if the rings end up in waterways.

Both companies realized that plant-based plastic falls short as a solution to combating the negative impacts that plastic has on the environment but, even though eliminating plastic all together would be best, switching to plant-based plastic still sounds like a good compromise. 

Email Marcia Booth at Marcia@3RsAndBeyond.org.