When you ask the average person, “What’s the easiest and quickest way to solve plastic pollution,” odds are, they’ll tell you to stop using single-use plastics. Skip the straw, use paper grocery bags, a reusable water bottle, the whole nine yards. But how are we supposed to send food to the far reaches of the world, drop clean water in war-torn areas, or protect ourselves from deadly pandemics like COVID-19? The truth is, single-use products are a necessity. What isn’t a necessity is plastic. When we began producing these single-use products, plastic was a quick, functional, and most importantly–cheap–option. However, we never considered the long-term consequences that would fall on our planet. Back then, plastic really was the best option for single-use products. But today, we have materials that can function just as well as plastic, and cause little or no harm to our planet. The key to solving plastic pollution isn’t elimination, it’s innovation.
What type of innovative material could replace plastics in the manufacturing of single-use products? Simple: bioplastics. Bioplastics are materials that function similarly to petroleum-based plastics, but are made from a biological base, and are biodegradable at the end of their life. This makes both their beginning-of-life (production) and their end-of-life (disposal) much more environmentally friendly, while still providing the functionality that is needed from a plastic material. Bioplastic materials can be molded, extruded, and blown into a variety of products that could easily replace their traditional plastic counterparts. With a much more sustainable beginning of life, these materials are already better than those that are petroleum-based.
When it comes to the material’s end of life, most bioplastics are compostable, meaning they will break down into usable compost in a relatively short amount of time (under one year). There are two categories of compostable bioplastics: industrial and home. Industrially compostable materials need to be taken to a specialized facility that can control other variables during the composting process, like moisture, temperature, and airflow. Home compostable materials can biodegrade anywhere on Earth–even in the oceans with the proper material thickness. Traditional plastics on the other hand simply break down into smaller and smaller pieces, leaching toxic chemicals into the environment as they do so. The end-of-life for compostables has no negative effect on the planet and actually provides a positive product to be used to support the growth of new feedstocks for the next generation of bioplastic materials.
Single-use products have made it possible for us to keep the world healthy, fed, hydrated, and safe. The solution for solving the planet’s plastic problem shouldn’t require us to give up the convenience and necessity of single-use products. And realistically, it doesn’t have to. Compostable bioplastic materials make it possible to have all the functionality required and expected of single-use plastics, but with none of the environmental impact that comes from utilizing petroleum-based materials. Single-usage isn’t the problem, the material is. And we’ve found the solution. The plastic pollution problem has truly been solved.