Covering Climate Now

Plastic Is Dead. Here's What to Replace It With

Mushrooms, cacti and water balls.

by Caterina Mapelli and Paola Aurora Barbieri
30 September 2019, 8:00am

Illustration by Davide Bart. Salvemini.

This article originally appeared on VICE Italy.

While plastic has been a good friend to humanity for more than half a century, its single use variety is rapidly becoming an enemy. Plastic straws end up in sea turtles' noses, nets and bags in bellies of whales, and microplastics in soil, water and even our bodies.

Reducing the production and consumption of plastic is the only way forward, so the European Parliament's vote to ban single-use plastics by 2021 is a step in the right direction. But it's not going to be easy to convince 7 billion people around the world to give up the convenience that plastic packaging affords.

So what are the alternatives, with all the best qualities of plastic, but not that one annoying downside – that it's ruining the planet?

PLA – Polylactic acid

PLA is one of the best known biodegradable polymers. It's obtained from renewable sources like corn starch, and products made of PLA can look exactly like those made of PET or PS plastic.

That strong likeness could help popularise it, but as long as traditional plastics from fossil fuels are still around, it might actually be a problem. If a PLA cup is thrown in with plastic recyclables, it can contaminate the recycling process. Single-use PLA items are biodegradable and suited to industrial composting. Italian water brand Sant'Anna produces Bio Bottles made of PLA, which go into the organics bin. That in itself is great news, but the cap on the bottle is made of traditional plastic and should be thrown out separately. That's explained on the company's website, but not on the half litre bottle itself – an example of how clearer information on a label could play a vital role in the recycling process.

The fact that an item is compostable doesn’t mean it’ll quickly decompose in just any environment. The process depends on temperature and environmental conditions. According to a recent study, for example, PLA immersed in room-temperature water takes over a year to decompose, while other sources claim that, in the ocean, it takes between six to 24 months. While that's a definite improvement on the hundreds of years that traditional plastic takes, you shouldn't be throwing bottles into the sea.

As it's made from plant starch, PLA also has a low carbon footprint – the production of traditional plastic releases around four times more CO2 emissions than PLA. On top of that, PLA needs little farmland to be produced, since it has a very efficient yield. To produce 1 kg of PLA you need 1.6 kg of biomass, whereas the same amount of bio-PET – the polyethylene made out of renewable sources – requires 5 kg.

Mater-Bi

Mater-Bi, a highly versatile material patented by the Italian company Novamont, is on the same wavelength as PLA. Its chemical composition is different, but it's also obtained from corn starch and plant oils, which the company says are grown in Europe and not genetically modified.

Most biodegradable bags around are made of Mater-bi, and, according to Novamont, the biodegradability time of Mater-Bi plastic film is nine months in marine sediment.

Mater-bi single-use biodegradable tableware exists, but hasn't taken off yet because of its relatively high cost. That isn't necessarily a bad thing – we should try to move away from using single-use items on a daily basis anyway, even if they're not terrible for the environment.

Ooho

You may be familiar with videos of Ooho balls – round water capsules you’re meant to gobble down in one. A research group at Imperial College London managed to find a way to wrap portions of water into an edible film made out of seaweed. The material is called Notpla, and its creators are keen to highlight its superior qualities compared to other bioplastics, including PLA. First, the brown seaweed it's made out of can grow by up to a metre per day, making it a more efficient source than crops like corn. Notpla also biodegrades in the ground in only four to six weeks, and doesn’t require industrial composting to be disposed of.

Nopal juice

The nopal cactus is a ubiquitous plant in Mexico, where a professor of chemical engineering at the Universidad del Valle de Atemajac patented a new biopolymer, made by mixing the juice obtained from the cactus with other elements, like plant wax. The resulting material can be used for edible packaging that biodegrades in the environment in just a few weeks.

According to its inventor, Sandra Pascoe Ortiz, the material is brilliant for many reasons – cacti grow in arid environments and don't take up land that could be used for agriculture, for example. They don’t require chemical fertilisers, nor huge amounts of water to thrive.

At the moment, the cactus-polymer is not as durable as plastic, but it's very useful as disposable packaging.

Banana leaves

Polymers are not the only sustainable alternatives to plastic. There are materials we can use that have existed forever – we just need to rethink their purpose. Throughout Asia, the problem of plastic waste is deeply felt, as Western countries have been dumping their trash all over the continent for years. Recently, several Asian countries began terminating contracts with those Western nations, who will now have to start dealing with plastic waste on their own soil.

To avoid at least part of the problem linked to "overpackaging", supermarkets in Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines and Bali have started packaging food in banana leaves. This solution has several advantages – first, banana trees are native and plentiful in the region; second, both the cost and the carbon footprint are radically lower than with traditional modern packaging.

Mushrooms

Though the idea that fungi could be an alternative to plastic isn't new, it’s only recently that Meadow Mushrooms, a family business in New Zealand, started trialling packaging made from mushrooms for its mushrooms.

The material is more breathable than traditional packaging, allowing mushrooms to stay fresh for longer and absorb humidity. This type of packaging could potentially be used for other kinds of food, and on a much larger scale.