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Plastics have become universal, being used for food containers, bottles, bags etc. Over 18 trillion pounds of plastic have been produced to date, and 18 billion pounds of it flows into the ocean annually, making it one of the most pressing environmental issues in the world. Solutions have been introduced such as recycling, decreasing personal use of single-use plastic and, more recently, bioplastics, plastics made up of plants or other biological substances.

What are Bioplastics?

Bioplastics are plastics made up of plants or other biological substances rather than traditional plastic’s oil and other natural materials. Bioplastics can be manufactured in two ways; first, they can be produced by removing sugar from corn and sugarcane to eventually be turned into polylactic acids (PLAs); secondly, they can be produced from polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs) made from microorganisms. 

The use of PHAs has grown exponentially, being used for food products (disposable containers), medical tools such as prostheses and sutures, toys and fashion. With this rise in use of bioplastics, its global market share is $9 billion, but the conventional plastic market share eclipses this at $1.2 trillion.  

Large, global companies have started to incorporate bioplastic into their manufacturing. Coca-Cola has introduced their ‘PlantBottle’, made from sugarcane originating from Brazil. These PlantBottles are up to 30% plant-based and the company is aspiring to manufacture packaging that consists of 50% recycled material by 2030. It also aims to continue with its goal of producing bottles that are 100% able to be recycled by 2025. Since 2009 when Coca Cola first inaugurated PlantBottles, its carbon emissions have reduced by more than 315 000 metric tons. 

Lavazza is another company who has altered its packaging- its coffee capsules are made from bioplastic. These capsules are compostable and biodegradable.

The environmental benefits of bioplastics include a reduction in fossil fuels as they do not require oil and crude oil to be produced; 8% of the world’s oil is used to make plastic. Moreover, bio-based plastics are seen to decrease greenhouse gas emissions  as plants take in carbon dioxide when they grow. 

Additionally, certain bioplastic products can be recycled like traditional petroleum-based plastics. Bioplastics are also 100% biodegradable and are just as resilient and flexible as traditional plastics. In terms of economic benefits, bioplastics have been deemed to be more marketable because advertising a product in line with green goals adds value to it, thereby showing that green products are more marketable. 

You might also like: How Well Does Asia Recycle?

Furthermore, according to a survey conducted in 2013 by the European Commission, 80% of Europeans would rather buy products with limited negative implications for the environment. Additionally, in London, 33% of consumers are purchasing products from brands they believe are not harming the environment.  PHAs are estimated to offset 10% of Europe’s plastic demands in 10 years. 

However, bioplastics is not the be-all, end-all solution to the pollution crisis. Experts argue that the solution is not spending time in producing more effective bioplastics, but rather increasing the amount of plastic that is recycled in the world. A study by the Pew Charitable Trusts and SYSTEMIQ claims that if governments fail to take effective action to reduce the use of single and non-recyclable plastic, yearly movement of plastic into the ocean will triple by 2040. 

Additionally, bioplastics do not decompose in water, floating like traditional plastic which poses as much harm to marine life as traditional plastics. Further, due to varying levels of degradability in different types in bottles, bioplastics may take years to decompose if they ever find its way into the environment despite its exposure to oxygen and ultraviolet radiation which would normally biodegrade certain bioplastics. If bioplastics are thrown in landfills and do not receive enough oxygen, they can stay there for up to 100 years before they eventually decompose and release methane. Traditional plastics can take up to 1000 years to decompose

Further, bioplastics and traditional plastics are difficult to distinguish; if PLAs are mixed with polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastics during recycling, it will reduce the quality and value of the recycled end product. Though PLAs are compostable, they are fundamentally an acid and will increase the level of acidity in the environment in which it decomposes, altering the pH value of surrounding soil and water. 

Moving away from environmental implications, bioplastics are more expensive than traditional plastics. The manufacturing of bioplastics costs 50% more in comparison to the production of conventional PET plastics. 

Ultimately, the most effective solution to the plastic pollution crisis lies not only within the increase of bioplastic products, but with the reduction of plastic consumption and the increase of recycling plastic. Simple, everyday ways to decrease plastic consumption include using a reusable shopping bag, limiting the amount of single-use plastic food products you buy, carrying a reusable water bottle and not using plastic straws and cutlery. Additionally, ways to increase the recycling of plastic is to be aware of the products you can or cannot recycle and explicitly search and purchase items with packaging made from already recycled materials. 

Featured image by: Flickr 

Plastic is an inevitable part of consumer behaviour, and in recent years the plastic waste problem has become a mainstream part of the public consciousness. However, some practical challenges need to be addressed in order to reduce our reliance on the substance.

Plastic Packaging Waste Statistics

The packaging sector is responsible for almost half of the plastic in the world. A KPMG report says that if the growth of plastic production continues at the current rate, the plastic industry could account for 20% of the world’s total oil consumption by 2050. Almost a third of all plastic packaging leaks out of collecting and sorting systems and ends up in soil and the ocean. Additionally, plastic degrades into fine nano-sized particles that are harmful to animals and stay in food chains. 

However, cutting out plastic completely is not as easy as people would like to think. 

Why is plastic packaging used?

  1. Food Preservation
    One of the biggest uses of plastic packaging is food, however there is ongoing debate as to how best to balance food and plastic waste, and food safety. The argument is that plastic is necessary to prevent food waste; roughly one third, or 1.3 billion tonnes, of the food produced for human consumption gets lost or wasted every year.

    Plastic packaging supports the safe distribution of food over long distances and minimises food waste by keeping food fresher for longer, and it provides a barrier against bacteria. For example, 1.5g of plastic film wrapping a cucumber can extend its shelf life from three to 14 days, and selling grapes in plastic bags or trays has reduced in-store wastage of grapes by 20%. However, 40%, or 9 million tonnes, of all food packaging ends up in landfills.

    Manoj Dora and Eleni Iacovidou from Brunel University London believe that a way to reduce plastic packaging is to create shorter food supply chains and ensure that food is consumed sooner before it goes to waste. Having shorter food supply chains means reducing the number of intermediaries between where the food is farmed and where it is bought and consumed. They suggest that this change will encourage a shift towards more seasonal diets, and that it will place an emphasis on the rise of community-based growers where consumers can see where their food comes from.

    You might also like: Tackling the Food Waste Crisis in China

  2. Plastic Recycling Isn’t Always King
    Only 14% of all plastic packaging is collected for recycling. A large problem lies in the failure to collect plastic in the first place, and that people don’t know what type of plastic can be recycled.

    There are seven types of plastic, making recycling trickier. Designing packaging that is easier to separate is vital, like having removable outer packaging and using water-soluble glues. Alternatively, plastic can be limited to a single standard to make recycling easier; coloured plastics such as black trays are harder to identify by sorting technologies, slowing down the recycling process.

    Further, plastic packaging cannot be recycled infinitely because it degrades in quality. Contamination and mixing of polymer types can also lower the economic and technical value of the secondary plastic being made and plentiful fuel is required to melt the plastic down and re-pelletise it. Additionally, some of the most ubiquitous plastic films are difficult to recycle, such as crisp packaging and disposable cups with plastic lining.

  3. Bioplastic Alternatives
    Alternative plastics must be created which are just as lightweight, durable and convenient as conventional plastics. Plant-based plastics, or bioplastics, made from corn starch or sugarcane, are one such solution.

    Bioplastics produce significantly fewer greenhouse gas emissions than traditional plastics over their lifetime. There is no net increase in carbon dioxide when they break down because the plants that bioplastics are made from absorbed that same amount of carbon dioxide as they grew.

    However, while their biodegradability is an advantage, most bioplastics need high temperature industrial composting facilities to break down, and very few cities have the necessary infrastructure; bioplastics therefore often end up in landfills where, deprived of oxygen, they may release methane. Further, when these plastics aren’t discarded properly, they can contaminate batches of recycled plastic and harm recycling infrastructure- if bioplastic contaminates recycled PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate, the most common plastic), the entire lot could be rejected and end up in a landfill. Separate recycling streams are necessary to be able to properly discard bioplastics.

    The land required for bioplastics also competes with food production as the crops that produce bioplastics can also be used to feed people. In 2019, The Plastic Pollution Coalition projected that 3.4 million acres of land were needed to grow the crops. Additionally, the fuel used to run the farm machinery produces greenhouse gas emissions.

    Lastly, bioplastics can be costly. PLA (Polyactic Acid- made from the sugars in corn starch and sugarcane) can be 20-50% more expensive than comparable materials because of the complex processes involved in converting corn or sugarcane into PLA. However, as more efficient and eco-friendly strategies for producing bioplastics are devised, prices are expected to come down.

  4. Sacrificing Convenience
    “The reality is, you’d have to use some reusable bags 3 000 times to basically neutralise the carbon footprint of the disposable bag that’s produced today,” says Karl Deily of sustainable packaging company Sealed Air.

    The way to rely less on plastic is to use none at all. But in the age of convenience, it is not that simple. A number of start-ups such as Loop, a supermarket delivery service using only reusable containers, is starting to gain momentum and it is these innovations that are vital to reducing plastic usage.

    With massive polluters like China announcing the ban of single-use plastic bags, there is hope yet for a world that relies less on plastic. Additionally, the amount of material used in packaging declined by 28% between 2004 and 2014 as a consequence of advanced technologies, indicating a global push towards a less plastic-centric world. 

Researchers in Israel have developed an environmentally friendly, degradable plastic – like polymer derived from marine organisms that feed on seaweed, which is completely biodegradable, as well as recyclable.

It was the successful outcome of a collaboration between Dr Alexander Golberg and Professor Michael Gozin of Tel Aviv University. Their study was published in the journal Bioresource Technology this month (January 2019).

This material may one day free the world of its worst pollutant. Plastic accounts for up to 90% of all the pollutants in our oceans, according to EcoWatch – yet there are few comparable, environmentally friendly alternatives to the material.

“Plastics take hundreds of years to decay. So bottles, packaging and bags create plastic ‘continents’ in the oceans, endangering animals and polluting the environment,” says Dr Golberg. “Plastic is also produced from petroleum products, which has an industrial process that releases chemical contaminants as a by-product.”

You might also like: How Wax Worms Can Be Used to Fight Plastic Waste

Conventional plastic is in fact largely derived from non-renewable fossil fuels like natural gas and coal that are resistant to natural degradation. Over time, they enter into the animal and human food chain. Hence, efforts are focussed on finding substitute primary materials that can decay naturally without altering the equilibrium of ecosystems when discarded.

What is bioplastic?

Researchers settled their attention on seaweed-feeding microorganisms and produced a biodegradable polymer named polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA), which completely breaks down into organic waste.

“A partial solution to the plastic epidemic are bioplastics, which don’t use petroleum and degrade quickly. But bioplastics also have an environmental price. To grow the plants or the bacteria to make the plastic requires fertile soil and freshwater, which many countries, including Israel, don’t have.”

“Our raw material was multicellular seaweed, cultivated in the sea” Dr Golberg continues. “These algae were eaten by single-celled microorganisms, which also grow in very salty water and produce a polymer that can be used to make bioplastic.”

“There are already factories that produce this type of bioplastic in commercial quantities, but they use plants that require agricultural land and fresh water. The process we propose will enable countries with a shortage of fresh water, such as Israel, China and India, to switch from petroleum-derived plastics to biodegradable plastics.”

The new study could transform global efforts to clean the oceans without affecting arable land and without using fresh water, always according to Dr Goldberg.

“Plastic from fossil sources is one of the most polluting factors in the oceans,” he says. “We have proved it is possible to produce bioplastic completely based on marine resources in a process that is friendly both to the environment and to its residents.

We are now conducting basic research to find the best bacteria and algae that would be most suitable for producing polymers for bioplastics with different properties” he concludes.

Innovations- such as this biodegradable plastic polymer using marine organisms- should be delved into further to use the power of nature to benefit the planet.

References:

Golberg, Alexander; Gozin, Michael; Fadeev, Ludmila; Greiserman, Semion; Gnaim, Rima; Ghosh, Supratim. “Macroalgan biomass subcritical hydrolysates for the production of polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) by Haloferax mediterranei”, Tel Aviv University. Bioresource Technology, Elsevier. January 2019.

Featured image by David Martin 

 

 

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