As useful as it might be, plastic is a bit of a menace when it comes to our environment. This handy material has been used in manufacturing for decades. It provides us with so many solutions, yet is traditional plastic soon to be a thing of the past? And what are eco-friendly plastics, and what benefits do they offer that stand to replace a number of oil-based plastic applications?
Today, with growing awareness of the environmental problems plastic causes, people no longer perceive it as the miracle material we thought it once was. As a result, science is looking to address the issue, and more eco-friendly plastics are becoming both more available and more popular2.
When you consider that the US used around 191 million barrels of natural gas and LPG a day to make plastic in 2010 (the last time the EIA collected data), we need environmentally friendly alternatives more than ever before.
Eco-friendly plastics come in two predominant types. One is created using recycled plastic, and the other uses natural materials.
While it is important that we reduce, reuse & recycle, eco-friendly plastic that comes from recycled plastic is still a risk to our environment. Therefore, eco-friendly plastics that we make with natural materials and no fossil fuels are far more beneficial. These materials can include the likes of hemp or cornstarch. What’s more, we can even use recycled food waste to make these newer, more environmentally friendly plastics.
Further, eco-plastic made from organic materials will decompose quicker than traditional petroleum-based materials when we dispose of it6. This makes it more environmentally friendly and can also help to reduce carbon dioxide emissions as a result of a more environmentally friendly manufacturing process5.
The most common types of eco-plastic are starch-based, such as polylactide (PLA). PLA behaves in the same way as polyethylene and polypropylene, both of which are harmful to the environment.
What’s more, PLA also produces around 80% fewer greenhouse gases when it breaks down as waste. To add to this, it will decompose in a matter of weeks as opposed to hundreds of years like regular plastic.
Related: Read more on the environmental impacts of regular plastic water bottles.
Biodegradable, eco-friendly plastic products are made using plant-based materials such as sugar cane, hemp, or corn. If something is biodegradable, it relies on living organisms to break it down7. Because we use plant-based materials to make biodegradable eco-plastic in place of petroleum, significant environmental benefits result. Despite this, certain conditions have to be met for bioplastic to biodegrade.
First of all, the temperature has to reach 50-degree celsius. Along with this, the plastic will need UV light. In many cases where plastic waste is present, both of these conditions are not met. For example, when buried in a landfill.
In contrast to this, degradable plastic does not rely on living organisms to break down. Therefore, it is not considered biodegradable or eco-friendly. Chemical additives are introduced during the manufacturing process. Although this helps to speed up the process, the resulting degradation remains.
When degradable plastic material breaks down, it becomes nothing more than microplastic. As such, it simply degrades into smaller plastic particles. The resulting degradation continues to pose a threat to our oceans, our animals, and marine life, and they can make their way into our food chain.
As such. degradable-based plastics remain an environmental problem once they’ve broken down. Further, the resulting smaller particles are nearly impossible to remove from the natural environment due to their size. As such, degradable eco-plastic (as opposed to biodegradable) is not nearly as environmentally friendly as the name might suggest.
That said, the fact that it doesn’t last whole for 100s of years is certainly an improvement when disposed of correctly.
More Reading: Biodegradable vs. Compostable - What's the Difference?
We use a vast amount of resources when we manufacture plastics. However, eco-friendly plastics are made using more efficient processes. As a result, we use fewer resources, and this includes raw materials, electricity, and water. Better still, less processing also helps to reduce the amount of Co2 emissions that enter the atmosphere.
It is important that we do all we can to reduce emissions. Therefore, eco-plastics look as though they could play a role in helping to deal with climate change when replacing traditional plastic packaging and other uses.
There are many links between conventional plastic and health problems3. It is also a problem for animals and marine life. Regular plastics contain a range of harmful chemicals such as BPA and PVC. These can lead to developmental problems in children after the leaching of toxic chemicals from the plastic into our food or drinks.
Meanwhile, eco-friendly plastics use natural ingredients and fewer to no chemicals at all. What this means is that it is less harmful to our environment, animals, and humans.
Eco-friendly plastics can be thinner than those made from regular plastic. Therefore, we need less of it. This means that the materials we use to make it can go further. What’s more, they are also extremely strong despite being thinner.
As they are better for the environment due to the natural ingredients, the recycling process and waste disposal are easier. This means that we can turn them into a range of other items after their initial application.
We all understand the problems that our animals and marine life face when it comes to plastic waste. Eco-friendly plastic does not pose as much of a risk to animals. However, it does become a risk when we incorrectly dispose of it, and here lies another issue.
Unfortunately, there is still going to be waste that finds its way into the environment. Despite this, as it breaks down a lot quicker, there is every chance it will disappear before the risks become apparent.
Traditional plastic takes a long time to break down. Hundreds of years, to be precise. Even when all of those plastic bottles, bags, and so on do break down, they cause all kinds of problems. In contrast to this, eco-friendly plastic breaks down quickly and can be composted. This helps to reduce the amount of waste that we have to manage at landfills and at home.
The US is a prime example of diminishing landfill space. As a result, eco-friendly plastic that we can compost and dispose of in a different way can help to save space.
As we mass-produce traditional plastics, it is already relatively cheap. While eco-friendly plastic might not be produced quite yet on the same scale, it can help manufacturers to save money. They will need less packaging, and this means that fewer materials are needed.
What’s more, the manufacturing process is more efficient, and that creates savings too. As production costs continue to decline, savings will be passed onto producers and, eventually, the consumer.
It can also save money when it comes to managing waste. Currently, recycling and managing waste cost billions. The lesser costs of processing eco-friendly plastic are another benefit1.
We already use a vast amount of plastic. With this comes a need for oil, and that poses serious problems. Drilling oil causes environmental issues, damages habitats, and puts wildlife at risk. There is also the risk of oil spills and pollution while there is a carbon footprint to consider.
Biodegradable plastics or eco-plastic reduce the amount of oil we need. Therefore, we can help to ease the pressure we are putting on our planet, we can also prevent disasters and save animals at the same time.
Consumer power is a phenomenal thing, and when consumers speak, brands listen. If consumers begin purchasing eco-friendly plastic items, then brands will need to take notice. Consumers are now more environmentally savvy than ever before. They are more considerate with their purchases, and they want to make better choices.
Therefore, if consumers share their feelings about plastics and make alternative choices, businesses are going to have to react. As a result, they are more likely to make a change to their products and packaging.
This is a question that we have to answer in a positive way. In a perfect world, we all want to say that it does, and why shouldn’t it?
The amount of conventional plastics that we use and dispose of is a concern. Staggeringly we get through about 1 million plastic bottles every minute, and 91% of these are not recycled. This is barely scratching the surface, especially when we consider where and how much we use plastic. From plastic containers, wraps, and each and every plastic bottle, plastic is everywhere.
There are many factors that will determine whether eco-friendly plastic becomes mainstream4. This relates to costs, attitudes, behaviors, and a willingness to change. Production has to increase in line with consumer demand.
There are certainly environmental gains to be had when using recycled plastics and eco-plastic instead of oil-based plastic. All the same, to really address our overarching problem with waste, we need to look beyond simply replacing one type of single-use packaging with a better one. Ultimately, we need to address our throw-away culture and move to reuse as much as possible rather than creating new packaging each and every time. Eco-friendly or otherwise.
|1||Recycling and Composting Saves Money, Energy & Pollution Compared to Disposal Via Waste-to-Energy(WTE) Conversion. Dr. Jeffrey Morris. Sound Resource Management. Olympia, Washington, USA|
|2||Environmental Benefits of Eco-friendly Natural Fiber Reinforced Polymeric Composite Materials. N.ABILASH, M.SIVAPRAGASH, Noorul Islam University|
|3||Components of plastic: experimental studies in animals and relevance for human health. Chris E. Talsness, Anderson J. M. Andrade, Sergio N. Kuriyama, Julia A. Taylor and Frederick S. vom Saal. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological SciencesVolume 364, Issue 1526. Published:27 July 2009 https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2008.0281|
|4||Jeseviciute-Ufartiene, L. (2020). DIFFERENCES OF CONSUMER BEHAVIOUR REGARDING PLASTIC USAGE. Management Theory and Studies for Rural Business and Infrastructure Development, 41(4), 520-526. https://doi.org/10.15544/mts.2019.42|
|5||Eco-friendly Bioplastic for Uncontaminated Environment. RAAZ MAHESHWARI, BINA RANI, SANGEETA PARIHAR, ANJU SHARMA. 2013 Academy for Environment and Life Sciences, India|
Sakai, K., Taniguchi, M., Miura, S., Ohara, H., Matsumoto, T. and Shirai, Y. (2003), Making Plastics from Garbage. Journal of Industrial Ecology, 7: 63-74. doi:10.1162/108819803323059406
|7||M. Aminabhavi, R. H. Balundgi & P. E. Cassidy (1990) A Review on Biodegradable Plastics, Polymer-Plastics Technology and Engineering, 29:3, 235-262, DOI: 10.1080/03602559008049843|