Can We Make Plastic More Sustainable?

As pollution causes a significant loss of biodiversity and humans now face a compromised aquatic-based food system, it’s time to meet a simple truth: The world has a serious plastic problem. 

Every year, 14 million tons of plastic pollution enter the ocean, causing illness and death in marine species through entanglement and ingestion. Seeing that fish is a major source of protein, the microplastics that wind up in our seafood further impact human health when consumed, such as oxidative stress, inflammation, metabolism issues, tissue damage and lower immunity. 

Consumer awareness is increasing around the consequences of plastic pollution, as is the demand for sustainable solutions limiting plastic’s greenhouse gas emissions and environmental effects. 

Using reusable grocery bags and bamboo toothbrushes are excellent eco-friendly changes you can make, but the initiative is not enough to tackle plastic pollution on its own. Solving the world’s plastic problem requires large-scale strategies to limit plastic production and better use what already exists. Here are three ways to make plastic more sustainable.

Recycled Materials

There are two types of recycled materials: pre-consumer and post-consumer. Pre-consumer materials are an accumulation of factory debris and damaged products utilized in later plastic production. On the other hand, post-consumer materials are collected after plastics reach the end of their lifecycle. 

While the United States recycled 94 million tons of debris in 2018, effective plastic recycling has a long way to go. Currently, collecting and sorting different plastics poses a significant challenge. By improving plastic recycling processes, one ton of recycled plastic could save the following:

  • Energy: 5,774 kilowatt-hours (Kwh) and 98 million British thermal units (BTUs)
  • Oil: 16.3 barrels
  • Landfill space: 30 cubic yards

Improvements in plastic recycling infrastructure can prevent this global crisis from worsening. Better planning and more substantial incentives and initiatives are necessary to educate industries and the public about plastic pollution and yield higher recycling rates.

Renewable Materials

Switching to biocomposites could also enhance plastic sustainability by replacing petroleum polymers with renewable, reclaimed fibers — producing fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

Most plastics derived from petroleum, which is non-biodegradable — taking approximately 1,000 years to break down — and includes polyethylene, PVC, acrylic, polyester, and nylon. By using wood fibers or agricultural byproducts as fillers for petroleum plastics, we can reduce our dependence on non-renewable resources by 70%, according to the American Fuel and Petrochemicals Manufacturers. 

Petrochemicals used in plastic production are expected to account for over one-third of global oil demand in 2030, likely reaching an additional seven million barrels of oil by 2050. However, manufacturing this material with renewable, reclaimed materials can significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

Take Enkase, for example — a newer technology that takes flimsy conventional plastic and turns it into high-performance packaging that delivers a longer shelf life for food. Enkase manufacturing produces zero emissions, process waste, and water waste, making it the most ecologically sustainable choice for protective packaging.  

Biodegradable Materials

Since non-biodegradable plastic could take thousands of years to decompose, it becomes a severe environmental hazard. 

We already know that a significant amount of plastic ends up in our oceans, a majority of which sinks to the seafloor or litters waves and coastlines at the surface. Scientists have even found plastic 10,975 meters down in the Mariana’s Trench, where there are more living organisms than you may realize. 

Although biodegradable plastics will not solve the problem, they can help decrease ocean pollution, save landfill space, reduce emissions and improve food waste composting. 

In 2020, U.S. landfills emitted nearly 109.3 million metric tons of methane, equivalent to 16.8% of all methane emissions throughout every industry. According to a 2015 report by Project Drawdown, worldwide adoption of composting by 48% could reduce 2.1 to 3.1 gigatons of landfill greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

Waste disposal and plastic pollution have dire impacts on the environment. However, seeking ways to improve this product with biodegradable materials is a step in the right direction. While not every biodegradable plastic is compostable, composted plastics without toxic residue could support plant life. 

Future Generations Depend on Sustainable Plastic

Plastic production will increase, posing more significant environmental and human health risks if not adequately addressed. Seeking ways to improve its ingredients, reduce manufacturing emissions, and find new ways to use compostable plastics is essential for the future.

Bio:

Jane is the Editor-in-Chief of Environment.co and an environmental writer covering green technology, sustainability and environmental news.