What Are the Top 3 Plastic Alternatives Right Now?

If you were asked to imagine a life without plastic, it would almost feel like you were reverting to a period movie, right?

Being plastic-free seems so far-fetched from what our current lives look like.

That’s how integral plastics have become in our daily lives. It’s an incredible material – that’s why it’s THE choice for most industries.

Airplanes, cars, healthcare products, electronics, consumer products and the packaging they are encased in: every sector it seems uses some type of plastic.

But with all the practicality we enjoy with plastic also come the hard consequences.

Every year, more than 8 million tons of plastic trash ends up in the ocean. And those are just what escapes in the seas. Landfills receive another 27 million tons.

What happens when there's a gazillion tons of plastic waste everywhere? Well, these will remain for centuries, in their original form, releasing carbon through all that time. That means they affect the climate… in a not so good way.

It’s actually no longer a matter of if plastic waste will impact us, but a matter of when and how severe the consequences will be for our habitats and our own human health.

From ingesting microplastics to dealing with devastating natural disasters because of climate change, there’s really no prime moment than now to do something about our plastic consumption.

Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

The Problem with Single-Use Plastic

So what are single-use plastics? Around 40% of plastics that we consume belong to this category.

Valerie Craig, Deputy Chief Scientist of National Geographic Society defines single-use plastic as items that generally have a functional life of less than a week. They are not designed to be reused or repaired.

Single-use plastic include:

  • Straws
  • Stir sticks
  • Packaging
  • Six-pack rings
  • Bags
  • Bottles
  • Straws
  • Containers
  • Cups and other food ware
  • Cutlery

What’s the problem?

Basically, you have something that is super convenient but requires so much production effort and resources – only to be discarded after one use.

They don’t degrade either, so they’ll need millennia to be gone.

And bioplastics are not exempt from being lumped in the same group. Even though they are biodegradable, this only happens under specific circumstances. 

Once biopplastics go to the landfill, they degrade about the same rate as traditional plastic because there is little oxygen in landfills to support biodegradation. 

Obviously, the way we’re going about consuming single-use plastic is not sustainable. If you stretch out these numbers over a long time scale, we essentially bury ourselves in waste.

Plastic may be very useful, but we need to look into alternatives that do not result in millions of tons of trash each year.

Top 3 Alternatives to Single-Use Plastic Right Now

The good news is the Canadian government has committed to mandating plastic-free laws. The ultimate goal is to be zero plastic by 2030. The first products to be banned are single-plastic items.

If you’re trying to figure out which plastic alternative is the best for you, check out these alternatives:

1. PLA

PLA plastic or polyactic acid is a vegetable-based plastic material, commonly derived from cornstarch.

It’s now used being used in everything, from food packaging to medical devices, and even a preferred material in 3D printing.

Pros:

Firstly, it’s not made from petroleum, so it’s renewable. PLA can also degrade at a much faster rate than plastic while still offering the same level of practicality. It’s also more available for businesses, as there are global manufacturers that produce the PLA resin.

Cons:

Critics argue that these so-called advantages may need a second take. For instance, while PLA is biodegradable because it’s made of vegetable starch, it needs a “controlled composting environment,” to break down properly. It cannot be mixed with other plastics in recycling. And if it does end up in a landfill, it will still take hundreds of years to degrade.

In addition, while there are PLA manufacturers worldwide, many of the raw material sources are affected by extreme weather events. The supply might not always be enough to meet the huge demand.

There’s also the issue of cost. PLA is around 20-50% more expensive than traditional plastic because of the processes needed to convert corn or sugarcane into building blocks for the polymer.

2. PHA

PHA or polyhydroxyalkanoate is a type of bioplastic made by microorganisms.

Raw biogas contains methane, CO2 and hydrogen sulfide. When bacteria metabolize methane, the organisms are ‘harvested’ at the cellular level to get the polymer.

PHA has a chemical structure similar to traditional plastics, but with the advantage of being biodegradable and safe for living tissue. This is why PHA is often used in the medical field, as bone plates, skin sutures, and slings. It’s also seen in single-use food packaging.

Pros:

Like PLA, it’s not derived from fossil fuel, so that’s a huge plus. But it edges out PLA in terms of biodegradability.

PLA requires an industrial composting facility, while PHA will biodegrade in ambient environments. That means even if it ends up in the ocean, it will break down.

Cons:

Cost is also an issue with PHA. It’s still much more costly than non-biodegradable plastic. If PHA production does not become more stable and cost-effective, it will be difficult to make it available for businesses and people. 

Another disadvantage is that if bioplastics like PHAs end up in landfills, they may release methane, a greenhouse gas that is 23 times more potent than CO2!

3. Natural Fiber Composites

Natural fiber composites are exactly that: plastic and glass alternatives that are sourced from plants and other agricultural materials. The technology dates back to 1908 with the introduction of cellulose fiber-reinforced composites, and was already being used for auto parts in the 1940s.

Natural fiber composites can be broadly classified as wood and non-wood fibers. These include raw materials such as grass, leaf, seed or fruit, straw, and wood.

Manufacturers can manipulate certain factors to meet the mechanical performance that traditional plastics are known for.

Pros:

Natural fiber composites seem to address our need for renewable resources. They can support energy security by lowering the carbon footprint, lessen the toxic and non-biodegradable waste in our environment, and minimize use of non-renewable resources.

Cons:

With natural fibers, degradation, moisture absorption and other irregularities will be inevitable. Unlike plastic, fibers degrade, swell, and change in time. Chemical treatments and further tech can improve fiber consistency, but these might add to the carbon footprint needed to produce more resilient fibers.

Conclusion

Plastics have been the most reliable and practical material for decades, but it’s time to consider more sustainable alternatives.

Of course, there is a need to shift our mentalities: from being comfortable with single-use plastic to consciously choosing to refuse, reduce, and reuse instead.

But it’s improbable that we’ll be able to shun all single-use habits we’ve formed in our modern lifestyle.

Much work is yet to be done in order to make these alternatives as ubiquitous as traditional plastic, but it is clear that this is a promising avenue for those who are willing to bet on environmentally friendly resources.

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