Here are a few to keep an eye on (and how you can help!)
Here’s a gloomy prediction: By 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans.1
It’s an alarming forecast, but is it much of a surprise? Plastic is nearly omnipresent in our lives. According to a recent report by the Ellen MacArthur foundation, global plastic production has increased twenty-fold in the last fifty years, a staggering figure that continues to rise.2
While conscious consumers have access to sustainable alternatives, bamboo toothbrushes and stainless steel straws are only part of the solution. Efforts to tackle existing waste without reducing future consumption won’t do much either.
The problem? Plastic makes life easy. It’s cheap, convenient, and useful. We need an Earth-friendly alternative that checks those boxes.
And the race is on. Researchers across the world are out to solve our plastic problem. It’s an imperfect process: some solutions will lead to dead ends; some, we may discover, will do more harm than good. Inaction isn’t an option either.
The stakes are high and the outlook is uncertain, but a single viable solution could change (and save!) the world.
Luckily, our planet is full of organic material to play around with. Here are a few unexpected contenders to keep an eye on.
You heard that right, millennials: avocados may be our ticket out of this mess. The fruit’s woody pit can be used to produce alternatives to some of single-use plastic’s biggest offenders: straws and cutlery.
In Mexico alone, thousands of pounds of avocado pits are discarded every day. Turning this unused material into forks and knives is a two-for-one win, reducing both agricultural and plastic waste in our landfills and wilderness.
The company making the most waves with avocado-based plastic alternatives is Biofase, a Mexican biopolymer company. (Note: Biofase is not a sponsor of this content, nor is any other company mentioned in this article)
Let’s Take a Closer Look
As explained by Bioplastics News, Biofase products take 240 days to decompose in natural conditions. That means they don’t need to find their way to a commercial compost facility for proper disposal.3
The company also claims its cutlery has a lower carbon footprint than any comparable material because avocado trees sequester carbon as they grow.4
Support this Plastic Alternative By: Biofase sells in bulk, making it a great option for businesses that can afford a slightly higher-priced, sustainable option. Ask your local restaurants and venues about their composting practices and share what you know.
Given the staggering amount of single-use plastic consumed globally - for instance, a million plastic bottles a minute5 - any truly viable alternative has to be produced quickly and abundantly.
That’s right. Several companies are exploring the fast-growing plant as an alternative to plastic bottles, containers, and straws.
The innovation caused a buzz at the 2019 London Marathon, where runners were handed sports drink-filled seaweed pouches during the race. The edible pouches, called Ooho6, were used to reduce the quantity of plastic bottles generated by the event each year.
Ooho pouches have also made appearances as edible alcohol, condiment, and sauce containers. If not consumed, the pouches break down in four to six weeks naturally.7
Support this Plastic Alternative by: Have a favorite festival or sporting event? Suggest the event organizers cut down on plastic waste by exploring this novel alternative.
You heard me, beer!
Now that I’ve got your attention, let’s talk about sea turtles. Plastic six-pack rings are notorious for ensnaring marine wildlife. As they break down, they also enter our food chain as harmful microplastics.
Campaigns to encourage consumers to cut and properly dispose of six-pack rings have helped protect wildlife in the short-term, but a sustainable solution requires producer buy-in. While many breweries and beverage producers have introduced eco-friendly caps (hooray!) the onus is still on the consumer. Many caps need to make it to a commercial facility for proper processing.
Saltwater Brewery in South Florida has come up with a genius solution: make dinner! The brewery uses barley and wheat ribbons from the brewing process to produce 100% edible and biodegradable six pack rings.8
Correct: instead of endangering wildlife, they’re nourishing it. Any creature that comes into contact with a six-pack before it decomposes has just come across it’s next meal.
Yum! (For sea turtles).
Support this Plastic Alternative: Dropping by for a beer? Ask the staff at your local brewery about their packaging process and share what you know about Saltwater Brewery’s Earth-friendly solution.
Are mushrooms really the future of packaging? It’s possible. Plastic packaging makes up nearly 40% of global plastic production.9 Mushrooms are showing promise as a quick-growing, safe, and biodegradable solution.
Several companies are (literally) growing plastic using a sticky, threadlike part of the mushroom called the mycelium. While the process differs depending on what is being manufactured, the end result is a durable product that can replace wasteful plastic packaging.
Here’s how mycelium—or “nature’s glue”—is shaping the future of packaging:10
Agricultural waste, such as corn stalks, is pasteurized and chopped up.
The waste is mixed with water and mycelium and pressed into industrial moulds.
After 3-5 days without sunlight, the fungus has grown into the shape of the mould.
The mycelium is heated up to stop further growth.
Evocative Design11 is one of the biggest names in the mushroom game, working with giants like IKEA, Dell, and Sealed Air. The company is exploring several applications for mushroom-based materials including packaging, skin care, and meat alternatives.
Support this Plastic Alternative by: Evocative Design is currently partnering with companies to deploy the technology, so it’s worth keeping in your back pocket if you deal with large-scale packaging of any sort.
Shellfish may play a key role in keeping both plastic and food waste out of our landfills. The hard outer shells of crustaceans are made of a material called chitin, which scientists believe could be a promising plastic alternative.
Chitin and cellulose (found in woody plants) are two of the most abundant organic materials on Earth.12 According to Physics World, research has shown that a composite film made by combining the two could be even more effective than plastic packaging at keeping food fresh for longer.13 Plus, it rapidly decomposes.
And chitin? We’ve got plenty.
The food industry generates between six and eight million metric tons of shell waste every year. The challenge is extracting it. In the past, these processes have been chemical-based or too energy-intensive to be economically viable. But science marches ever onward, and recent methods show greater potential for effectively extracting chitin.
Support this Plastic Alternative: chitin-derived alternatives may be part of the solution to our plastic problem, but more development is needed to improve the material and enable economical production. Learn more and start conversations with others.
A few hard truths:
Your consumer habits contribute to our waste and climate crises.
It’s not your fault our system is plastic dependent.
It IS your responsibility to step up.
It’s easy to feel helpless in the age of disappearing ice caps and record-breaking wildfires.14 But remember, this is also the age of Greta Thunberg and global climate strikes. You are not powerless, and you are not alone.
Here are a few ways to take action:
The easiest changes start at home. Consider giving up plastic bags, straws, and cutlery. Bring your own doggy bag. Identify where you can cut back on plastic and find a sustainable alternative. Oh, and get a reusable water bottle already.
Join the conversation. New York14 recently became the second state to announce a ban on plastic bags. Several major cities have imposed plastic straw bans. What about your city, your state? The voices and votes of engaged citizens can and do impact change at a political level.
Lastly, remember that you are a member of a species particularly adept at finding solutions in unexpected places. Most of the materials in this article are derived from by-products or waste. What by-products of your daily life can you use to reduce your plastic use?
Have a tip? Share your interesting solutions to combating plastic waste below and help drive the conversation forward.