Earth News Journal 40: Sustainable Solutions for Plastics

Since the dawn of the industrial era in America, plastics have been both a convenient resource as well as a critical hazard to the environment.

A vital solution has been so far unattained by the nation’s conservationists, but work has begun to right this horrendous wrong – the answer “lies not in a world without plastic, but rather a world in which plastic is responsibly made from infinitely renewable resources.”

Light-weight and highly portable, plastics allow for the preservation and transportation of food, beverages, and commercial products – but they’re not easily recycled. The material of plastic is derived from fossil fuels, a notorious non-renewable resource that has been overused and overcompensated for on this finite planet of ours.

Plastics seriously harm the environment in two ways: through the “extraction of these resources and the waste that is created when these materials are not recycled.” Consequently, the United States is suffering from a fatal invention flaw.

Recently, World Wildlife Fund and a team of industries are creating what’s known as plant-based plastics, with the material coming from ‘feedstocks’ as opposed to fossil fuels. Eric Simon, WWF’s packaging and material science program manager, explains the intent behind this design.

“Plastics are mostly derived from finite resources like petroleum. The environmental impact of the extraction of these fossil-based resources, coupled with their diminishing availability, requires us to explore new solutions. With the emergence of plant-based plastics, we are already heading down that path, but we have to consider what new impacts these solutions will have on our planet and how to manage those appropriately.”

While feedstock-plastics would lessen the global market’s dependence on fossil fuels, the plastics industry would place a heavier burden on the international agriculture sector, a practice that, if not carefully regulated, could contribute to even more environmental damage.

Fragmentation, biodiversity loss, fertilizer dependency, and water loss are all potential problems that arise from a reliance on agricultural practices. Nonetheless, World Wildlife Fund is partnering with eight other global consumer brands under the Bioplastic Feedstock Alliance in order to responsibly develop plant-based materials for plastics.

Feedstock materials of choice are sugar cane, corn, bulrush, and switchgrass – for now. “We are trying to do what was done in fifty years for fossil-fuel based technology in about five to ten years,” Simon stated. If all goes according to plan, these newly-revolutionized plastics could “accelerate a future that is good for business and for the planet.”

Reflection

One of the first observations I made when driving down through Cincinnati on the way to Kentucky was the amount of plastic bags clustered in heaps along the side of the highway. I don’t think I was ever so struck by the amount of non-degradable material floating haphazardly through the environment than on that stretch of road. It was disgusting and despicable – our American influenza has engineered this vulgar excess of stuff that’s just rotting in ditches across the country. What amazes me most is the fact that plastics abide in almost every kind of packaging conceived – from plastics in the thin film of liner on business envelopes to plastics lining the books in every public library. When has plastic become the American byproduct of production? Even if we were to cease all manufacturing of plastics in the United States right now, the amount of plastics tumbling through American wind currents would still be immense; the amount of plastics suffocating the oceans, unfathomable. If bioplastics are not the answer to America’s persistent plastic problem, then I sincerely hope we have the technology to curb this petroleum binge within the coming century. If not but to protect our own limited resources, but then to protect our environment, and the other creatures that inhabit the land. These innocents should not be subjected to human filth, or our petty discards. We don’t own the Earth anymore than these animals do. We should have a sense of dignity towards our providing planet, instead of letting it rot underneath our superior gaze. 

“Pursuing and Achieving Sustainable Solutions for Plastics.” World Wildlife Fund. N.p., 19 Nov. 2013. Web. 04 Apr. 2014.

This post also appears on Blogspot