Plastic: On the hunt for the silver bullet


Silver bullet

On the hunt for the silver bullet for plastic, industry must be careful to not promote problematic alternatives, warns Lucy Hughes founder of MarinaTex and previous winner of The James Dyson Award.

In the pursuit of a solution to the plastic waste problem, companies, researchers, and entrepreneurs have been searching for alternatives.

Plastics encompass a vast array of materials, each serving as building blocks for thousands of different products. Their high degree of customisability has allowed for the creation of products optimised for specific use cases. However, while plastics excel in terms of production, cost-effectiveness and usability, they fall short when it comes to raw materials sourcing and disposal.

The urgency to find solutions has led to the initiation of ambitious targets from both governments and private companies.

Although recycling innovation and infrastructure is progressing, certain applications, such as plastic films, pose unique challenges. The abundance of different materials used in films and their lightweight nature makes them difficult to capture and separate for recycling. Consequently, obtaining sufficient output from recycling processes to be economically viable becomes a significant hurdle.

The urgency to find solutions has led to the initiation of ambitious targets from both governments and private companies. For example, come 1 October (2023) businesses will be banned from supplying single-use plastic plates, trays and bowls to members of the public. This includes all types of single-use plastic, including biodegradable, compostable and recycled.

Additionally, businesses across industries are setting ambitious targets including:

  • Nestlé – “Ensure all plastic packaging is 100% recyclable or reusable by 2025.”
  • Sky – “Remove all single-use plastic in our products and operations by 2020.”
  • Finnair – “Remove half the single-use plastic waste generated from our operations by the end of 2022.”

While these targets are well-intentioned, they can inadvertently lead to the adoption of short-term solutions and corner-cutting, which may exacerbate or cause new problems.

For example in March 2019, Finnair, the Finnish flag carrier, announced the launch of its new sustainable Business Class amenity kits. The kits are wrapped in cardboard rather than plastic, the toothbrushes are made from bio-plastic containing corn starch and the plastic wrappings for the earplugs have been replaced with wax paper..

While at face value the above switches sound like a step in the right direction, they have the following complications:

  • Cardboard production involves harvesting trees which can contribute to deforestation and the loss of biodiversity. Furthermore, energy-intensive processes like pulping and bleaching commonly used in paper manufacturing can result in higher CO2 emissions compared to plastic production. Additionally, the increased weight of cardboard packaging compared to plastic packaging can lead to higher CO2 emissions per flight, further impacting the carbon footprint.
  • Cornstarch bioplastics production competes with use for food, feed and other agricultural purposes. This competition for arable land, water resources, and other agricultural inputs can have implications for food security and agricultural sustainability. Additionally, they require specific conditions, such as industrial composting facilities, to break down efficiently. If these plastics end up in conventional recycling or landfill systems, they may not degrade properly and can contribute to environmental pollution.
  • Wax Paper contains synthetic additives derived from petroleum, which make it unsuitable for composting. Paper is waxed to be moisture resistant – and since the recycling process uses water to break down paper fibres, the wax renders paper unsuitable for recycling.

Plastic alternatives

Wax paper

When considering alternatives, it is essential to assess the specific requirements of each application and consider the whole lifecycle of the product – including raw materials, production, transportation, use-phase and disposal.

With the examples listed above it could be argued that when compared with plastics, they are the lesser of two evils. And for the war we are currently fighting (the war on plastic), they might well be correct. However, there are many pressures in the near future which will likely meet, if not overshadow, that of plastic, in particular the increase of CO2 and the shortage of fresh water and arable land for growing crops.

It is for these reasons that current targets start to look short-sighted and reductionist. When evaluating alternatives to plastic, it is essential to take a comprehensive approach that considers the broader sustainability challenges we face. While reducing plastic waste is important, it is crucial to address other environmental issues such as rising CO2 emissions, biodiversity, water scarcity and the strain on arable land.

Achieving a regenerative approach requires collaboration and innovation across the supply chain.

To tackle these challenges effectively, we need to adopt a regenerative mindset. This means setting targets that encompass a thorough life cycle assessment of products and going beyond sustainability by focusing not only on reducing negative impacts but also on creating positive outcomes.

This can involve using materials sourced from regenerative agriculture or renewable sources to restore soil health, enhance biodiversity and reduce the carbon footprint associated with production.

Achieving a regenerative approach requires collaboration and innovation across the supply chain. Businesses, researchers, policymakers and consumers must work together to drive change.

Cardboard production involves harvesting trees which can contribute to deforestation and the loss of biodiversity, Hughes argues.

This includes supporting research and development of sustainable materials and technologies, investing in waste management and recycling infrastructure, and promoting consumer awareness and behaviour change towards more sustainable consumption. Additionally, this requires patient capital from private and government funders as often benefits won’t be seen within the typical 3-5 year returns window.

By embracing a regenerative, long-term mindset, we can move towards solutions that address the plastic waste problem while also contributing to a more resilient and sustainable future where products and solutions are designed to minimise harm and actively restore and replenish our natural resources.

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