The future of plastic lies in its reinvention as bioplastics

Solutions

The amount of plastic we produce to package consumer goods, especially fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) — packaged foods, beverages, toiletries — has reached an unprecedented level.  We are draining our planet to produce these packages: plastics are made from fossil fuels and 8% of the worlds annual petroleum production is converted into making plastics.

On top of the environmental repercussions of the production process, most plastics produced for packaging FMCG are not recyclable, and even if they are, we don't recycle them. Only 14% of plastic packaging gets collected for recycling which then goes through a sorting process and in the end, only 5% of all plastic is reintroduced to the production cycle.

There is no one single solution to the plastic phenomenon. On the one hand, the rate we're producing and consuming plastics is destroying our living planet. On the other, plastic is a light-weight, durable and relatively cheap to produce material. It saves on transportation costs — both financially and environmentally — keeps food safe to consume for a long time, and allows us to produce solutions like malaria nets, which save lives for two dollars per net.

The complex problem of plastics needs to be tackled from all fronts. Yes, reducing one's personal plastic waste is part of the solution but we also need to think about the larger picture. Plastic doesn't just cover the garden tomatoes in the supermarket, it's everywhere and anywhere.

Alongside consumer-centric solutions, there is also a growing need for designing new materials that can replace the plastic we can't (and don't) recycle. The new materials need to have all the positive aspects of plastic — durable, lightweight, cheap — and replace all the negative ones — made from fossil fuels, non-recyclable, and non-biodegradable.

Luckily for us, innovators from all over the world have been trying to replace/reinvent plastic for a while now, and it's exciting to see the innovations coming up that are simple and promising at the same time.

Evoware is one such company that is producing a plastic alternative. The Indonesia based company produces eco-friendly, bio-degradable and even edible packaging solutions. Their packaging is seaweed-based which means it dissolves in warm water, is 100% biodegradable and it's not only safe to eat it also contains good fibres, vitamins, and minerals naturally found in seaweed.  And despite being edible and biodegradable Evoware’s products have a 2-year shelf life.

Another exciting plastic alternative is NUATAN, a new sustainable material developed by the design and research studio Crafting Plastics. According to the studio, NUATAN is “made out of 100% raw renewable resources, polymerised from corn starch and metabolised by microorganisms, and it is compostable”. It also supposedly has a lifespan up to 15 years and can withstand temperatures up to 110 degrees Celsius.

The designers currently produce value-added products made from NUATAN, like designer glasses, where the price doesn’t differ much from their non-biodegradable counterparts; but they are hoping that the demand for bioplastics can bring the price of production down so NUATAN can be used in industrial scale.

And this is the main problem of bioplastics. As promising as they sound, the two examples above (and many other plastic alternatives) are produced in small quantities and mostly on demand. The cost of production is currently higher than traditional, planet-destroying plastic thus it’s challenging to break into the very established production cycles.

However, this is also where the above mentioned multiple fronts come into the picture. The one thing that could — and does — convince big scale industries towards a switch is customer demand. So, reducing one’s plastic consumption might not have an immediate and statistically significant effect in the environmental battle but it does have an impact on the greater scale.

For example, recently The Guardian announced their switch to a potato starch-based plastic alternative for the packaging of their print edition. The packaging is completely biodegradable and dissolves within six weeks.

A few months before that, Lego launched sustainable bricks made from a plant-based plastic sourced from sugarcane. Explaining the launch as the first step in the company’s goal to go fully bioplastic in 203o, Tim Brooks, Lego’s Vice President of Environmental Responsibility said: “children and parents will not notice any difference in quality or appearance of the new elements”.

In the grand scheme of things these steps are quite minuscule and some might deem them frivolous, but if we keep sitting and waiting (and writing) for the ‘big’ change it’s highly unlikely to come out of nowhere. The future of plastic lies not in its complete demise but in its reinvention as bioplastics.

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  • Climate change is a matter of international security

    Obstacles

    When we think of “global threats”, we usually imagine terrorist attacks, cyberwars, and weapons of mass destructions. Or maybe, trespassing into the realm of fiction, of James Bond’s Dr. No and other, similar, cats-owning villains.

    Obviously, these are all fearsome scenarios and risks (especially Dr.No). However, there’s another “global threat” that is looming above us, even though we probably wouldn’t think of calling it that way. Such a threat is climate change.

    Last Tuesday, the Office of the Director of US National Intelligence published its yearly Worldwide Threat Assessment, a hearing of the US Senate Select Intelligence Committee that has occurred since 2006.

    In the report, the US intelligence community lists a series of “global threats” that humanity is currently facing. Amidst transnational organized crime, the proliferation of weapons of mass destructions, and online operations to interfere with political elections, we find also — grouped in the section relating to “human security”  — the “negative effects of environmental degradation and climate change.”

    In particular, the assessment highlights how the increased magnitude of these phenomena is likely to “fuel competition for resources, economic distress, and social discontent through 2019 and beyond.”

    Three are the main critical points raised by the report. First off, the intelligence community is concerned by extreme weather events and particularly by how they will affect urban coastal areas in South Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Western Hemisphere.

    Secondly, they link the increasing water and food insecurity around the world with the “changes in the frequency and variability” of heat waves, droughts, and floods.

    And, finally, the report zooms in on the issue of diminishing Arctic sea ice, highlighting how this problem paves the way for increased competition with Russia and China over access to sea routes and natural resources.

    En passant, the intelligence report reminds its readers that Arctic ice is shrinking constantly. “In 2018, the minimum sea ice extent in the Arctic was 25 percent below the 30-year average from 1980 to 2010,” the report warns.

    As environmental media outlet Inside Climate News reminds us, The Worldwide Threat Assessment included “climate change” as a global threat to human security also in the past years, so there’s “nothing new under the sun”: the ice is still melting.

    However,  while other global threats like terrorism are treated as such in the media, climate change is still too often debated not as an imminent threat but as something that, if at all, will strike far in the future.  At the opposite, as the 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment denounces once  again, climate changes' effects are already underway.  

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  • The U.K. government should grant charitable status to public-interest news media

    Solutions

    A year ago, the UK government asked economist Frances Cairncross to conduct an independent review of the challenges high-quality journalism is facing in the country.

    Last Tuesday, the Cairncross Review was published, highlighting nine recommendations that the government and regulators ought to follow to help secure the sustainability of journalism in the future.

    The recommendations range from investigating the workings of online advertising (aka the Google-Facebook duopoly) to developing a media literacy strategy.

    However, the recommendation that attracted my attention the most, given my particular interest in the charitable sector, was number nine.

    It reads: “New forms of tax relief: The government should introduce new tax reliefs aimed at (i) improving how the online news market works and (ii) ensuring an adequate supply of public-interest journalism.”

    Cairncross is hinting at two tax changes here. The first one is the extension of zero-rating VAT to digital subscriptions and micropayments for online news (currently, the exemption is enjoyed just by print newspapers and periodicals) and the second is granting charitable status to particular types of high-quality, public-interest journalism.

    Last June, Cairncross issued a ‘call for evidence’ to gather material for the report and the review reveals that granting charitable status to select news outlets was one of the most frequently raised proposals.

    As known, charities benefit from several tax breaks in the United Kingdom so it would be much easier for a news organization with charitable status to attract philanthropic donations that could provide a much-needed additional revenue stream.

    However, this is easier said than done. As the report notes, UK’s current charity law is probably incompatible with the role of news organizations since it forbids charities “to undertake certain political activities such as securing or opposing a change in law, policy or decisions affecting the country”.

    A solution could then be to add public-interest journalism to the list of charitable causes the 2011 Charities Act set out to advance. But, again, this might take time and be deemed legally too complicated. That’s why the Cairncross report also highlights a “second-best option”: building a journalistic equivalent of the Creative Sector Tax Relief that grants support to creative industries ranging from video-games to film production.

    Legal feasibility aside, the indication expressed by Craincross is part of a larger trend that is taking hold in the news industry: non-profit journalism.

    Facing shrinking revenue opportunities, several news media startups across the world decide to opt for business models that rely solely on donations, from private individuals or larger foundations.

    One of the most notable examples is certainly ProPublica, a Pulitzer-Prize winning newsroom established in New York in 2007 to produce investigative journalism in the public interest.

    But media organizations that adopt mixed business models are also considering the idea of attracting philanthropic money to fund in-depth reporting with increasing interest.

    I’m thinking of Vox’s vertical Future Perfect or The Telegraph’s Global Health Security initiative, founded respectively by the Rockefeller and the Bill and Melinda Gates’ foundations.

    Just to give a number, Oxford University’s Reuters Institute for The Study of Journalism found that 12 percent of European publishers saw philanthropy as an “important” income stream in 2019.

    Obviously, “philanthrojournalism” is not immune to criticism. How can we make sure that the money comes with no strings attached? And even if we can guarantee that the media outlet retains total editorial control - as in the examples I mentioned above - how could we envision a system where the funding doesn’t necessarily reflect the funder’s interest areas?

    These are complex challenges that require bold and imaginative solutions.

    Maybe we should think beyond large foundations. In a recent article for The Guardian, journalist Owen Jones contemplates a sort of democratized public subsidy for the whole media industry. His idea, firstly proposed by US media scholar Robert McChesney, consists of the state giving every citizen a yearly allowance of $200 to donate to one or more publications. In Jones’s hypothesis, the allowance would be funded by an annual tax on the advertising industry.

    The idea lends itself to an array of criticism. There’s the evident risk, for example, that the funding will just mirror the electorate’s political preferences of the moment resulting in a pro-government press with more money than its competitors.

    Regardless, the idea has the merit of being radical and out-of-the-box and that’s the kind of thinking we need in this ongoing brainstorming on the future of journalism.

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  • Go vegan because of mass exploitation, not because eating animals is wrong

    Solutions

    With veganism on the rise and entire supermarket aisles now dedicated to veggie and vegan food ranges, it’s a good time to consider what motivates people to go vegan.

    There are many reasons why people decide to cut animal products from their diet, but the negative health effects of excessive meat and dairy consumption and the enormous environmental impacts of industrial agriculture are popular ones.

    However, the suffering of billions of animals each year in factory farming, referred to in a 2015 Guardian article as one of the “worst crimes in history”, is the most powerful motivation for many, including myself.

    Refraining from something that causes so much harm and suffering is laudable, but there’s one argument occasionally used in vegan and animal rights campaigns that warrants closer attention – the idea that consuming other creatures is morally wrong in its own right.

    Such views are often bolstered by powerful moral arguments framing animals as subjects of a life, able to experience pain, and as leaders of complex emotional lives.

    Opposing meat eating on ontological grounds – meaning, simply because animals are sentient beings, we shouldn’t eat them – separates humans from nature and prevents truly ethical relationships between humans, animals and the natural world. The late environmental philosopher Val Plumwood coined “ontological veganism” to describe this absolute opposition.

    Ontological veganism asserts that beings that count as ethical subjects should not be eaten, in the same way that there’s a widespread taboo about eating humans. While this thinking erects another unhelpful boundary between animals and other life forms, it’s also ironic that the rationale underlying taboos against eating humans is the desire to radically separate humans from other animals.

    By framing the consumption of other living beings as an inherent moral wrong, ontological veganism also risks demonising predation. In order to avoid this, a common approach is to “excuse” animal predation by arguing that the latter is part of “nature” while humans, as cultural beings, should be exempt.

    Some of us – especially those living in wealthy countries – can indeed choose to opt for vegan products, but this argument reproduces another false dichotomy: nature vs. culture. Life is entanglement, with no clear boundaries between “humans” and other species, or between “nature” and “society”.

    Ecological Animalism

    "Come among the deer on the hill, the fish in the river, the quail in the meadows. You can take them, you can eat them, like you they are food. They are with you, not for you."

    This quote is from the late utopian author Ursula Le Guin, in her novel Always Coming Home. Her idea is akin to Plumwood’s theory of ecological animalism, which seeks to replace human supremacy over nature with mutual and respectful use between humans and other species.

    Ontological veganism would frame using or consuming animals itself as inherently exploitative. But consider forms of mutual use seen in symbiotic relationships, such as those between pollinating insects and plants. In such scenarios, use isn’t oppressive or exploitative. It’s the form of use seen within industrial capitalism, where humans and non-humans alike are treated only as a means to an end, that prevents ethical relationships.

    Ecosystems and all living beings depend upon mutual use and consumption. Orcas consume fish and other marine mammals, we must consume living vegetable matter at least, and when we die, we become food for a host of microorganisms, nourishing them in turn.

    If humans are indeed animals who differ from other species only by degrees rather than kind, then like them, we are food. To deny this is to deny that humans are embedded within the ecosystems they originate from and are sustained by.

    The horrific cruelty involved in industrial factory farming reduces living beings to mere profitable commodities. This is why I am a vegan, and it is here where calls for eradicating or at least reforming animal agriculture find firmer ground.

    The ways in which animals are currently treated in agriculture represent the exact opposite of respect and mutuality. No wonder Aldous Huxley observed in his poignant ecotopian work, Island, that

    "For animals… Satan, quite obviously, is Homo sapiens."

    Ecological animalism offers a powerful basis for truly ethical and egalitarian ways of relating to other species. We are all food, and crucially, so much more. We are with and not for one another, and we are all worthy of respect. Go vegan whenever and wherever possible, but be mindful of the underlying rationales involved, lest we reproduce the same harmful dualisms we want to dismantle.

    This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. It's written by Heather Alberro, Associate Lecturer/PhD Candidate in Political Ecology in Nottingham Trent University. Read the original article here.

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