Plastic Free July: 7 plastic alternatives you need to know

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Hello and happy Plastic Free July! Some of you may be taking part already, in which case well done and keep going, but for those unaware, Plastic Free July is an initiative that helps people around the world come together as part of the solution to the global plastic pollution problem. The idea is to raise awareness, provide resources and encourage individuals and societies to cut single-use plastic out of their lives for this one summer month (or longer if you can!). We believe that it’s vital for us as an agency to keep our finger on the pulse when it comes to sustainability efforts, so expect to see more content such as this over the coming months.

In order to fight off the effects of climate change and create a more sustainable future, it’s important that we all try to contribute in our own little ways, most especially by cutting down on single-use plastic. But sometimes it can be hard to know where to start, what changes to make and how to implement them in your life in a way that isn’t going to derail it.

The first step is, of course, to educate yourself and others. To learn what simple things you could be doing better. So, we thought we’d help with that by spreading some knowledge, making information on the subject more readily available and, hopefully, aiding in making that adjustment a little bit easier. First though, a bit of background…

What really happens to our plastic?

The good news: Your recycling is making a difference. It’s important and is one of the small, everyday things we can all do to strive for a greener tomorrow.

The bad news: Through no fault of your own, that recycling is not having as large an impact as it should. This is no reason to give up doing it, of course. But we feel it’s important to shine a light on the reality of what’s really happening to our plastic after we’ve made the effort—and sometimes worked ourselves into a right tizzy— to get our waste in the correct bin.

The truth is that well over half of the UK household plastic packaging the government claims is recycled is sent abroad, most of it going to countries with very low recycling rates and serious problems with plastic waste being dumped or burned illegally.

Plastic waste found dumped and burned in the Kuyumcular area of Turkey included packaging from UK supermarkets and global food and drinks brands. Photograph: Caner Ozkan/Greenpeace

Regrettably, the truth is that less than 10% of everyday plastic—the plastic packaging in which the things we buy are wrapped—actually gets recycled in the UK. And given the fact the UK produces more plastic waste per person than almost any other country in the world, that’s a major problem.

But enough of the doom and gloom. When it comes to plastic we buy, all we can do for the minute is recycle and hope that as much as possible is duly processed. But there are other, longer-term, more hope-effusing options. The first being to…

Buy plastic alternatives.

Bio-degradable, compostable plastic alternatives save you from the fear that all your hard recycling work is counting for little. More and more products and companies are embracing such avenues and so we decided to shine a light on some of the best substitute options going.

So, here are 7 plastic alternatives to give you a little hope that we can still turn this thing around…

Mushroom root

Image: healthymaterialslab.org

Mycelium is the largest organism on the planet. It is the root structure of mushrooms that runs underground, intertwined in a web-like configuration beneath our feet, linking plants to one another, allowing them to communicate and exchange nutrients. It is also nature’s biggest recycler, capable of breaking down toxins, such as plastic or oil, and turning them into available nourishment to help other living organisms thrive.

Mycelium provides a 100% home-compostable alternative to plastics, leather, Styrofoam packaging, meat and more. It’s a bio-contributor, meaning that it breaks down into nutrients that are useful for the soil and fits into the world’s recycling system.

The process starts by upcycling natural crop fibres, such as corn husks and hemp, that are of no further use to regional farmers. Applying the same natural process that occurs in nature, the mycelium works to break down these natural fibres. In doing so, they form their characteristic web of durable thread-like filaments that can be shaped and directed into various types of product packaging.

The result is a fully biodegradable, recyclable and compostable alternative to petroleum-based polymers in traditional packaging. It’s both lightweight and durable, as well as moisture and fire resistant. Not to mention, it requires only a fraction of the amount of energy needed to produce plastic or cardboard.

It only takes a short time to grow—sometimes as little as a week—and decomposes in 30-90 days. Mycelium technology was first introduced by Evocative Design in 2006. Expect to hear more about it as increasing numbers of companies move away from plastic and towards an eco-friendlier future.

Bagasse

Image: tritonint.com/products

Bagasse is made from pulp that is left over once juice has been extracted from sugarcanes or beets. Previously this biowaste product was simply thrown away or burnt, as no one had yet discovered its more practical utility.

Bagasse is often used in the catering industry, as it is a brilliant alternative to plastic disposable plates, cups and takeaway boxes. Its ability to contain food up to 95 degrees Celsius, retain heat for longer than plastic or paper alternatives, as well as its being refrigerator and microwave safe make it the perfect catering material.

Its fibrous texture makes it more durable than polystyrene alternatives, plus it is water and grease resistant and 100% biodegradable in roughly 90 days—compare that to the up to 400 years it can take plastic to biodegrade and it’s easy to see why bagasse is being turned to in droves.

Seaweed water bubbles

Image: Shawn Knoll / Getty Images

This revolutionary packaging, made from seaweed and plants, proves especially useful as packaging for drinks or sauces, as it is completely edible—and can be coloured and flavoured, no less. If you don’t want to eat the packaging then no matter, it biodegrades naturally within 4-6 weeks, the same time frame as a piece of fruit. The packaging is already much used at marathon events, where plastic bottles used to be dropped carelessly for 26 miles.

Brown seaweed grows up to 1m per day, doesn’t compete with food crops, doesn’t need fresh water or fertiliser and actively contributes to de-acidifying our oceans, making it a near enough perfect sustainable material.

Moving on from just food and drink packaging, this seaweed-based packaging is being developed as sachets, heat sealable films, and being used to tackle the problem of lined cardboard, which is usually coated with plastic made from oil or corn.

And you thought the seaweed at your local Chinese takeaway was good…

Shower-friendly paper

Image: seedphytonutrients.com

Seed Phytonutrients—a division of L’Oréal USA—has made steps to eradicate one of the most ubiquitously used plastic bottles the world over: the shower bottle. Shampoo, conditioner, shower gel, you name it. We all wash our hair and our bodies (if you’re reading this and you don’t, now might be a good time to get started) and so find ourselves at the mercy of the in-shower plastic pile-up. Well, no longer.

In partnership with Ecologic Brands, L’Oréal USA designed a recycled, recyclable, compostable, paper-based pump bottle that is shower-proof and water-resistant. It consists of a pouch-in-a-paper-shell concept, with the external shell 100% paper-based, recyclable and compostable, and a lightweight, thin-walled, blow-moulded liner on the inside, made using 80% post-consumer recycled high-density polyethylene, also recyclable. So you can lather yourself up and wash away that plastic guilt.

Stone paper and plastic

Image: Ariel Zambelich / Wired

Stone paper is made from calcium carbonate (80%) and HDPE, a form of plastic (20%). Now, you may be wondering why we’ve suggested a plastic-containing product on our alternatives to plastic blog, but stone paper is completely free of trees, waterproof, tear-resistant and is photodegradable, meaning that after a year to 18 months of exposure to the sun, it dissolves into dust, making it ecologically friendly. It can also be recycled and then turned into yet more stone paper. Plus, the 20% plastic can be derived from recycled plastic bottles, plant waste and other non-virgin sources to further contribute to sustainability efforts.

Stone paper can be printed on just as easily as conventional paper and plastic, unless using laser printers, which can reach too high a temperature. It is an ecological alternative to traditional plastic carrier bags or conventional paper and provides a great option if you wish to help cut down on the cutting down of trees.

Palm leaves tableware

Image: healthyliving.natureloc.com

Many of us are not going to experience a luxurious, palm tree-laden beach holiday this year. We won’t get to lay back in the sand and soak up the sun, the waves, or the spiky, drooping beauty of some idyllic palm leaves. That said, maybe we will see the latter and simply not recognise them. It’s a possibility, considering once palm leaves have been soaked in spring water, heat pressed into shape and then dried in the sun, they become something altogether more everyday: plates and bowls. 100% compostable and biodegradable plates and bowls at that.

Palm leaf tableware is a range of biodegradable partyware made using naturally fallen palm leaves. The manufacturing process is totally natural with no coatings or other additives applied at any point. The products are durable, waterproof, microwave, oven and fridge friendly, too, making them the perfect choice for any eco-conscious catering event. Who needs a beach holiday? *

*Don’t answer that.

Corn Starch Plastic

Image: Times of India

Corn plastic, also known as bioplastic, is made from polylactic acid (PLA), a plastic substitute made from fermented plant starch. It has the same characteristics as more traditional and ecologically harmful plastics, but is made from corn starch polymers, a biodegradable and renewable resource. And, like its petroleum-based plastic counterparts, it can be made into film or fibre, making it ideal for use in packaging materials.

The properties of polylactic acid allow corn starch plastics to be food safe and resistant to fats and oils, printable, resistant to ultraviolet rays from the sun, compostable, and able to be recycled by regrinding. It decomposes within two months of being in a high humidity composting environment, at any temperature above 60 degrees Celsius.

Unfortunately, corn plastic should not be recycled alongside conventional plastic and to avoid complication with recycling and composting, many commercial composters will only accept bioplastics from food service operations and not from regular households. So, for now, it may not be the optimal, everyday solution you’re after. But it’s still doing its bit!

At Point 6

It’s important to us as an agency that we contribute to helping the environment in any way we can. As such, we’ve taken measures to improve our company sustainability. This includes providing specialised Point 6 Chillies bottles made of aluminium, one of the most recyclable materials the world over, to all of our employees to help them avoid buying single-use bottled drinks, strictly buying recyclable stationery moving forwards, and fully kitting out our kitchen with tableware and cutlery to reduce the need for single-use plastic crockery.

We’ve also encouraged our employees to only come into the office on days they wish to, which aids employee well-being while softening commuter pollution. On top of this, we’ve decided to re-think the methods and regularity with which we will travel to Europe for our business meetings going forwards, to cut down on air travel.

We’re not perfect—who is?—but we’re striving to do our best and we hope that this Plastic Free July, if nothing else, has helped you and us become more aware of the small things we can each do to make a difference. Climate change is a collective problem that requires a collective response. Let’s all work together to do our bit.

While you’re here, check out how some of the world’s biggest brands are replacing their plastic packaging 

  • 23rd July 2021
  • 11 min read
  • Robert Darke
  • Categories

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