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The Future of Plastics

Consuming plastics: you are what you eat

Eating Plastic

Plastic consumption is an all time high. The New York Times just released an article that a new study shows microplastics are in our gut. Because there is so much of it in the ocean, we cannot avoid it. Tiny particles of plastic are consumed by fish and other sea creatures. When those animals are consumed by people, those particles end up in our bodies. Even if you aren’t a seafood lover, there is still no way to avoid plastic. In a recent study, researchers tested tap water from around the world and 83% of water tested positive for micro plastics.

So why do we use plastic in the first place?

As many of you know as business owners and creatives for food, beverage and cosmetic businesses, plastic is simply the most cost-effective, lightweight, durable, and versatile material available.

Plastic production is actually expected to increase rather than decrease in the coming years. Why? Plastic has a very low recycle rate at just 14%, so the other 86% is thrown away and replaced with new plastic.

Creating Something ‘New’

From environmental contamination to damaged health, the growing issue of plastic has many people very concerned. This concern has prompted some sustainably-minded, inventive designers and engineers to see old plastic in a new light. Old plastic can be found anywhere, costs next to nothing, and comes in many textures, sizes, and colors. This means it can be easily transformed into something new.

Some designers have been using recycled plastic to make everything from jewelry to homeware to garments. They are looking on the bright side of an environmental crisis. Designer Jan Puylaert makes a great point when he says that, “it is a good thing” there is so much plastic in the natural world, “because … we can probably recycle for as long as we want/need.” With so much plastic to recycle, there are limitless options for creation.

An Alternative

Rather than using recycled plastic or foregoing it altogether, some companies are opting to create biodegradable plastics, or ‘bioplastics’.

While bioplastics are better for the environment, the environmental benefit isn’t immediate. ‘Biodegradable’ means that the material will eventually break down completely, but that could take a number of years, depending on the material’s exposure to water, bacteria, and sunlight.

Types of bioplastics are:

  • Corn-derived bioplastic
  • Starch-derived bioplastic, mainly from potatoes
  • Castor seed-derived nylon bioplastic
  • Sugar-derived bioplastic created by bacteria

Biodegradable vs. Compostable

Materials that break down in several months or quicker are ‘compostable’, and are usually only made of organic materials. This includes things like plants, food scraps, and animal remains – basically anything with once-living cells. These things can be composted in a massive industrial compost, or just a personal compost out in your backyard.

The one thing biodegradable and compostable products and materials have in common is that, in order to be considered either one, they must aid in future plant growth. They also have another thing in common: they should never be recycled. They can’t be recycled because they will contaminate any truly recyclable materials that they are mixed in with.

What’s Ahead?

The EU is stepping it up. EU lawmakers voted in favor of a complete ban on 10 single-use plastics including straws, cutlery, and coffee stirrers. This adds the EU to the growing list of governments committed to helping the world address its plastic waste problem.

If plastic usage continues at this rate, there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050. As is, the vast majority of plastic that exists is either already in the ocean or is in landfills. In the Pacific Ocean, this trash has grown so large it is roughly the size of France, and has been officially named the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Trash has accumulated so quickly because most plastic is only made for one use. This is especially true for plastic products like food and drink containers.

Many brands, like Starbucks, Adidas, McDonalds, and IKEA, are taking steps to be more environmentally friendly. They are cutting down on their use of new or ‘virgin’ plastic, switching to recycled plastic or, eliminating use of plastic entirely.

Exciting research and experimentation is happening as we speak, but we have a long way to go to cut down on our dependence on plastic production. Biodegradable plastic may be a great alternative. However current bioplastic options just don’t have the conditions they need to breakdown and be successfully biodegradable. More successful options in the future would be easily broken down by either saltwater or freshwater.

For now, our hope lies in old plastic. Ambitious designers and engineers have already paved the way. Following in their footsteps, we can recycle old plastic into new, sustainable products. This would not only cut down on production costs, but it would also cut down on harm done to the planet and ourselves. It’s a win-win.