Globally, environmental advocates have been advising the adoption of eco-friendly alternatives to plastics for a long time now. According to a research, the world’s ocean will have more plastic than fish by 2050 hence threatening marine life.
The governments and environmental advocates are constantly working to counter the plastic pollution across the world. Developing countries are at risk of rising plastic pollution due to inadequate infrastructure. Developed nations are also putting bans on plastic bags and resorting to more eco-friendly alternatives due to environmental concerns.
It is a challenge to avoid plastic in this plastic-filled world. But finding eco-friendly alternatives to daily use plastic items like bottles and plastic packaging is the need of the hour. As the infographic also demonstrates, in this article, we will discuss the problems associated with plastic and its eco-friendly alternatives.
Plastic — the material of a thousand uses
It won’t be a lie to call plastic a versatile product used everywhere and in everything. Plastic comes from fossil fuel-based chemicals like natural gas or petroleum. In 1907 Leo Baekeland transformed the world by inventing plastic. This versatile new material got the name Bakelite — a pure synthetic plastic during that time. Bakelite was a breakthrough innovation as it could take any shape possible. And it was heat resistant and durable.
Today, plastic is the key ingredient for everything, hence is everywhere. We have plastic in bicycle helmets, airbags, and safety seats to keep you protected. Plastic is in your cellphone, computer, tv, and other electronic items that facilitate you. It is in your roofs, flooring, walls, and insulation. Through your food packaging, plastic keeps your food fresh. This material is in your clothing, personal care hygiene products, baby products, and even in products that you do not even realize.
Since the 1950s, owing to its huge demand, plastic production has shown steady growth. Around 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic have been produced since the 1950s. The rising production and consumption have also risen the plastic waste which is a big problem. The research indicates that every year we produce around 300 million tonnes of plastic waste. That is surprisingly equal to the weight of the entire human population on earth.
The problem with plastic is that most plastics are non-biodegradable as they do not decompose in nature like paper or food items due to the added additives to make them stronger. Plastic stays put in the environment even for hundreds of years while polluting soil and oceans, eventually harming the life on the planet and causing global warming.
Why is plastic a problem?
Plastic pollution is a threat to the environment. As a Hollywood actor Leonardo DiCaprio writes on his Instagram page:
Plastic pollution is a global issue, killing wildlife, contaminating our oceans and waterways. The long-term consequences are catastrophic and in some cases irreparable.
Single-use plastic dilemma
The production of single-use plastics is the real dilemma, as it accounts for 40% of the production of plastic. These single-use plastics have limited usage of one time, but they stay in the atmosphere for a thousand years. According to the research, the consumption of single-use plastic bags in every minute is 2 million, thus a whopping annual consumption of 1 trillion. A study by Minderoo Foundation shows that 20 petrochemical companies are responsible for 55% of the world’s single-use plastic waste.
Single-use plastics such as bottles, bags, and food packages are the most common type of plastics. According to UNEP, the most common single used plastics are cigarette butts, plastic drinking bottles and plastic bottles caps. And these are real obstacles to the environment. Single-use plastic is a global issue as the article by CNBC states that;
Australia and the U.S., respectively, were found to produce the greatest amounts of “throwaway” plastics, at more than 50 kg per person per year in 2019. South Korea and the U.K. were found to generate 44 kg of single-use plastic waste per person.
The single use plastics are an issue due to their low recycling rate. The problem is that plastic does not decompose, therefore stays in the environment, and eventually causes pollution.
Various human activities, including excessive plastic production and consumption, have caused damage to the environment and resulted in climate changes.
Tackling plastic waste
Plastic waste disposal and management is another obstacle associated with excessive plastic. According to UNEP, only 9% of all plastic waste accumulated throughout the years got recycled. About 12% got incinerated, and 79% of plastic ended up in landfills or dumped in the natural environment including rivers. The rivers carry plastic trash from lands to the sea that then ends up in oceans which contributes to ocean pollution. The low recycling ratio of plastic is due to the fact that most plastics are not recyclable and in some case very difficult to recycle.
According to UNEP, every year around 8 million tonnes of plastic end up in oceans. The ten rivers that carry 90% of plastic trash are Yangtze, Yellow, Hai, Pearl, Amur, Mekong, Indus, and Ganges Delta in Asia, and the Niger and Nile in Africa.
Plastic ingestion by animals and humans
Most plastics are non-biodegradable, hence stay in the environment for thousands of years. Plastics never disappear but rather persist and cause disruption to the ecosystem. Plastic bags, plastic food wrappers, bottle caps, plastic lids and straws are a few most used plastic products that take 1,000 years to degrade. Most plastics are not even recyclable or very difficult to do so. Once disposed, animals and fish eventually consume them as they get smaller (photo-degrade) instead of decomposing fully.
These microplastics are in the air we breathe, the water we drink, and eventually in the food we eat. The microplastics absorb toxins and pollute the environment. According to an article on National Geographic, “You eat thousands of bits of plastic every year”;
It’s possible that humans may be consuming anywhere from 39,000 to 52,000 microplastic particles a year. With added estimates of how much microplastic might be inhaled, that number is more than 74,000.
These plastic particles consumed by humans and animals affect their health negatively. Plastic consumed by animals can cause slow painful deaths by preventing digestion. Similarly, for humans, microplastics ingested can lead to diseases like metabolic disturbances, liver damage, tissue inflammation, disturbing reproductive system, and even cancer. Similarly, the chemical from plastic bags also affects the growth of important microorganisms, Prochlorococcus, a marine bacterium that provides one-tenth of the world’s oxygen.
Our dependence on plastic has resulted in negative consequences on our environment — thus urging us to look into eco-friendly alternatives. Here are some eco-friendly alternatives to plastic that can help us reduce plastic usage and, ultimately, pollution.
Stainless steel is a sturdy and easy-to-clean substitute for plastic. It has quickly become an alternative to plastic. The production of stainless steel requires no harmful chemicals. It is also recyclable as more than 80% of stainless steel items are recycled. Stainless steel never releases toxins like plastic into water or soil, hence a more eco-friendly alternative. We should increase the use of stainless water bottles, straws, food containers, dishes, cookware, and others instead of similar products made from plastic to counter plastic pollution.
Glass is one of the best eco-friendly alternatives to plastic. It is safe, cost-effective, reusable, and multiple times recyclable. Since glass packaging does not contain harmful toxins like plastic bottles, it can replace plastic for packaging food products. Unknowingly, you are ingesting plastics from the plastic packaging of your favorite jam, butter, and syrups. Similarly, glass is a better option for pharmaceutical and cosmetics products to prevent harmful chemicals from plastic packaging mixing with the original formula. Additionally, drinking your favorite soda from a glass bottle prevents you from in taking microplastics from the packaging and is eco-friendly as well.
Wood is a better alternative to plastic which is natural, reusable, and recyclable. It is a renewable resource that can replace plastics in household items like cleaning brushes, kitchen utensils, cutlery, and cutting boards. Similarly, using bamboo straws for your favorite soda or juice is better for the environment as well as for individual’s health than ones made from plastics. Besides, toys made from woods are making comebacks as more and more people are making sustainability their top priority.
Other Alternatives include vases, cutlery, dishing bowls, teacups, and other usable things made from ceramic — a non-toxic alternative to plastic. Similarly, using paper and cardboard for food and beverages packaging, shopping bags, cups, dishes, and storage containers is better than using toxic plastic products. Shopping bags made from pure cotton, hemp, or wool are better alternatives to harmful plastic shopping bags.
Is Bio-plastic the future?
First, let us define bio-plastics.
Bioplastics are plastics materials produced from renewable biomass sources, such as vegetable fats and oils, corn starch, straw, woodchips, sawdust, recycled food waste, etc. Wikipedia
Also, bioplastics are recyclable through biological processes as they come from renewable resources. Bioplastics are now everywhere. They are replacing traditional plastic in many things including, food packaging, containers, straws, bags, bottles, non-disposable carpet, plastic piping, phone casings, 3D printing, car insulation, and medical implants. The bioplastic industry is growing rapidly; future projections are that by 2022 it will grow to $44 billion.
Despite bioplastics being safer than traditional plastic, there is still a catch. Bioplastics are not easily degradable in landfills. Like conventional plastics, microplastics do not degrade naturally by organisms, they do not break even in 1000 years naturally, and hence keep polluting the environment. The bioplastics left unbroken release harmful methane gas, which is 23 times more hazardous than carbon for the environment. Breaking bioplastics require proper facilities, which are not available everywhere.
Besides, the production of bioplastics itself produces a lot of pollution. Bioplastics come from crops that require fertilizers and pesticides to grow which cause a great amount of pollution. Similarly, the chemical processing that turns natural materials into plastic also contributes to environmental degradation.
So the best solution to all the plastic pollution is switching to eco-friendly alternatives to plastic. Reducing plastic consumption can positively contribute to environmental challenges including climate changes.