Rise of biodegradable the end of plastic?

Plastic is hazardous to the environment and consumers are taking a stand – with plastic straws being the latest villain. As a result, various eco-friendly alternatives have surfaced. MARISKA MORRIS investigates biodegradable alternatives and their impact.

In 2015, marine biologist Christine Figgener posted a video of a plastic straw stuck in a sea turtle’s nose. Her team came across the animal while on an expedition off the coast of Costa Rica to collect parasites living on sea creatures. The team removed the straw from the turtle with great effort as the animal sneezed, squealed and bled.

Three years later, the video has gone viral and inspired many global movements that encourage consumers to live a plastic-free lifestyle. Consumers are now putting pressure on international conglomerates to ban plastic straws.

In South Africa, selected stores, like Cape Town-based Nude Foods, offer customers a plastic-free shopping experience, while some restaurants no longer offer straws, or use bamboo alternatives. Some bars in Johannesburg, like Tonic in Linden, use steel straws for their cocktails.

Environmental activist Auri Jackson promotes reusable, travel-size cutlery that consumers can carry and use in place of disposable plastic products. This push from consumers for more environmentally friendly alternatives has escalated into other industries as well.

Sea life is at high risk of being affected by plastic pollution in the oceans.

In an article for Time magazine, Sophia Rosenbaum points out that straws make up only four percent of the nine-million tonnes of plastic pollution washing into the oceans and onto shorelines annually.

“The drinking utensils are often referred to by environmental activists and groups, including the Plastic Pollution Coalition, as ‘gateway plastics’ that ease people into single-use items,” Rosenbaum writes. An industry particularly affected by this new demand for plastic-free products is the food and beverage industry – particularly the packaging sector.

In some instances, plastic can be the better alternative, as is the case with the reusable, plastic boxes offered by Sheet Plastic, which look similar to cardboard boxes, but are more durable and thus can be reused. With many smaller plastic containers, bags and bottles, this is not the case.

Choosing the biodegradable alternative

In an article for the website Innovative Excellence, Shelly Greenway suggests a few alternatives for packaging, including plant-based plastics, mushroom root, bagasse (a by-product of sugarcane processing), seaweed water bubbles, or stone alternatives.

Greenway writes: “Bioplastics are made from a variety of sources, such as corn; which is broken down into PLA, or polylactic acid. This is incredibly sustainable to produce as it’s made from the waste produced during the production of corn. With mycelium (mushroom roots), packaging is literally grown.

“Ecovative Design (an advanced-materials company)gathers agricultural waste, mixes it with the mycelium in moulds and then the packaging, quite literally, grows. A United Kingdom start up, Ooho, has created an edible (and by default, biodegradable) water bubble made from seaweed, which can replace plastic bottles.”

The process of producing these seaweed bubbles uses nine times less energy and produces five times less carbon emissions than polyethylene terephthalate (PET) production. Stone can also be used to make plastic or paper products, which is printable, recyclable and waterproof.

It is made from calcium carbonate – one of the most abundant resources with a lower carbon footprint and a more energy-efficient production process that uses less water. Other alternatives include using bamboo-based products, palm leaves, wood pulp and prawn shells.

Packaging made from mycelium (mushroom roots) is literally grown in moulds.

Eco is not always friendlier

Anton Hanekom, executive director of PlasticsSA, warns against companies that see the plastic-ban movement as an opportunity to gain PR points. He says: “Some retailers and brand owners were quick to respond by introducing alternatives to paper bags and piloting a compostable bag made from starches, cellulose, vegetable oils and combinations.”

“To the uninformed this might seem an excellent and practical solution to solve an irritating problem. The reality is, unfortunately, far from the truth,” he adds.

Hanekom explains that many of the plastic alternatives saturating the market have not been properly evaluated and certified as biodegradable. Some of these products will not degrade in the standard suburban compost heap, but only in properly managed composting facilities.

“According to the internationally accepted standard for compostability (EN 13432), the packaging has to be mixed with organic waste, and also has to be maintained under test scale composting conditions for 12 weeks. If not kept under ideal conditions, these bags will not degrade,” Hanekom states.

These alternatives could end up at a landfill, which is not an ideal composting environment, or in the recycling stream where it can contaminate an entire stream and render more material unrecyclable.

The important choice

If an organisation commits to plastic-free production, it is important to ensure that the alternatives used are sustainable and fully degradable. Organisations can also ensure proper recycling avenues for their plastic waste and material to reduce their impact on the environment if no suitable alternative is available.

South Africa has a rich recycling industry with more than 313 700 t of plastic recycled in 2017. It is important for organisations to consider the impact of their decisions on the environment, if a solution to the problem is to be found.

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