The Case for Using More Practical Polymers
Plastic fills every nook and cranny of our lives, taking on many shapes and forms. We produce over 300 million pounds of it annually! Take a moment to look around the room in which you’re situated and notice the plastic that surrounds you. Do not simply peer at the plastic objects themselves, take note of the receptacles in which many of those objects are contained. Now, imagine all that plastic disappearing before your very eyes. What’s left — not much!
Where do all the plastic fragments go — the little corner you ripped off the package of your morning breakfast bar on your way to work — that unnoticeable piece that accidentally flew into the street? More often than not, the runaway remnants of plastic waste get broken down, journeying to our natural waterways, and subsequently to our ocean (about 10–20 million tons of plastic each year). The debris is ground down into microscopic bits and corralled by the currents in what has become an ocean of plastic. The ocean can be thought of as a giant toilet with regards to how it “flushes” our plastic waste. In this case, the toilet water has nowhere to go, swirling forever in an endless standstill void known as The North Pacific Gyre. You might have heard of the Giant Garbage Patch, or have seen photographic evidence supporting the fact that birds are mistaking plastic for food. Those photos make us sad for sure, but they are not doing anything to change behavior. Why? Well, we have no other choice but to consume plastic. It wraps pretty much every commodity imagined in its malleable sheath. When you go to the store to buy milk, you are purchasing plastic. I don’t care if it’s organic, sustainably sourced, or even if it’s sold in a glass carafe, I guarantee that all options at your local grocery store contain some form of plastic lid. The hippest of hippies cannot avoid this bendable binge.
We overindulge in plastic everyday and that can have severe consequences on our bodies.
Intractable amounts of plastic are consuming us. We bathe in plastic. Beyond the confines of their containers, plastic particles make their way into our consumables in unnoticeable forms such as microbeads; exfoliating soap scrubs, cosmetics, sunscreens, and even synthetic clothing to name a few. Should this worry us? Although these products are “FDA approved,” do companies know (or care) about the long term effects these materials have on our bodies, our psyche, and our wellbeing? Phthalates contained in these products can leach into our bodies, taking on the form of endocrine disruptors. By mimicking hormones in the body, these chemicals interfere with the endocrine system. They can bind to receptors within in a cell and block naturally occurring hormones from binding. Furthermore, they have the ability to prevent the natural production of hormones from occurring. And the result of these hormonal impostors can be severe; adverse developmental, reproductive, neurological, and immune defects.
My bitter experience with everything plastic
Before moving to Silicon Valley, I worked on a small organic farming project in upstate New York. I was part of a team designing permaculture gardens for clients throughout the Hudson Valley and selling crops from our own gardens to local farmers markets. I soon learned that the ag industry is one of the most wasteful with regards to its plastic use and old-fangled disposal procedures. Pretty much every input utilized in the growing process comes from some manifestation of a plastic container; seed trays, buckets, plastic wraps, plant tags, hoop house covers, weed barriers, soil bags, mulch bags, and many more. As responsible cultivators, we tried to reuse large plant containers and trays, but the plastic was oftentimes too flimsy to be used from year to year. Worse, I began to notice that many of these containers, large and small, were made from non-renewable and non-recyclable materials. I would often peer all about the containers looking for some type of recycling symbol, often to find nothing. On long road trips around New England, in the pursuit of purchasing organic plant inventory from large nurseries and farms, I discovered mountains of the plastic containers in trash heaps waiting to be hauled away to a nearby landfill. The notion of waste gave me chills because I knew in most states, especially Connecticut, the recycling laws (or lack thereof) were incredibly lax. Citizens there had to pay to have their recycling taken away, and so many individuals and businesses opted out of the “service.”
Haunted by those experiences on the farm, that same year I embarked on the development of a compostable plant container that had the ability to biodegrade into the soil. On the farm you have the option of using either peat pots (made from plant fibers that have a tendency to decompose rather quickly) or plastic — that’s it. Therefore, I was blown away by the possibility of using biodegradable plastic pots. Biodegradable pots would have the stability required for farmers to seed, grow, ship, and transplant directly in the ground in one single container. For the next few months, I worked out a patent for a plant container for hydroponic and soil applications. I believed these plastic “plant pots” could be manufactured using a compostable polymer, but I was sure the material versatility for compostable plastic was not yet available. During my endless search for bioplastic sources, a manufacturer approached me soon enough (we’ll call them “The Bioplastic Plant” for now). It turned out that I was wrong — the technology to create bioplastic in any compostable form was already here.
You can manufacture any type of plastic “grade” from compostable resin; soft plastic bags, durable cups, and even mesh materials. Compostable plastic can even be 3D printed! The most commonly used compostable plastics derive from corn starch which is then converted into a polymer. Bioplastic, mainly in the form of PLA (Polylactic acid), is manufactured from other materials as well; potato starch, soybean protein, sugarcane, petroleum byproducts, and even fruit!
After my experience speaking to the Bioplastic Plant, I imagined a world in which every piece of plastic could fall to the Earth and become part of it again. Like a leaf falling from a tree, the byproducts of our consumption would last but a fleeting moment before high heat, sunlight, or hot water aided in their decomposition.
There is a difference between the terms “biodegradable” and “compostable.”
The term biodegradable refers to substances capable of being decomposed by bacteria or other living organisms. Not all biodegradable materials are considered compostable though. Compostable products by definition leave no visible, distinguishable or toxic residue behind. They must also break down in a timely fashion. Most biodegradable and compostable plastics do not have to go through any recycling process. Usually just a bit of hot water (usually around 140°F to 60°C) is enough to melt and break down the material (depending on the grade).
The plastic conundrum suffocates us.
I am all too familiar with most plastics — PVC, PP, ABS, PC , HDPE— you name it. As a product developer, I have worked with pretty much all them in the form of different consumer goods. As a result, my knowledge base has brought with it an inner struggle to understand what’s right with regards to manufacturing in the name of human and environmental safety. Would I drink from the same bottle I was helping design? Luckily, companies are beginning to bring their customer’s concerns to the forefront of their material research, but how much do their material manufacturers even know? What toxicity reports have they performed and for which standards have they designed their materials? I am not saying we should ban plastic consumables, I’m seeking some conscious efforts to analyze our relationship with it. We need plastic, so we need to figure this out sooner rather than later.
What will it take for companies to conform to a bioplastic standard?
When I interviewed The Bioplastic Plant’s lead engineer, he noted that the company still experiences backlash on their materials from major retailers like Whole Foods. Whole Foods has banned the sale of GMO derived goods in their stores, so plastics made from GMO corn will not make the cut for their cutlery. He noted another interesting fact — corn is no longer corn once it has been processed into a plant resin. So where do we draw the line with the Non-GMO labels? After our conversation, I gathered that, if given the chance, The Bioplastic Plant would use non-GMO resources if they were readily available in mass quantities and sold at comparable prices. But getting there is Step 2.
Right now, we’re at Step 1 and we need companies like Whole Foods to spark the revolution in accepting PLA based products, not to postpone it. As a leader in the sustainable space, Whole Foods has done an incredible job normalizing organic food, but now they need to do the same with compostable resins. I am all for the non-GMO take on food related products, but I feel much better purchasing plastic spoons made from GMO corn than filling my tank with GMO corn derived ethanol to drive to Whole Foods (you feel me?). But our country’s addiction to GMO and petroleum based products is another story for another day. For bioplastic, it’s all about priorities and instead of being nitpicky, companies need to glance at the larger, systemic issue at hand — insurmountable waste.
A First Step in the Right Direction.
Conventional plastic isn’t a bad thing when it’s used on the right things. Working in product development for the infamous kitchen gadget company, OXO, I learned that good design is also at the heart of being eco-friendly. If your design stands the test of time, it will make it on the shelves of Whole Foods and avoid the landfill. It’s not that most product design is bad. Rather, it is wrong that our conscious efforts lead to defiance in the form of fashion colors, poorly designed products, or junky quality. “Junky” — lends itself to landfills. We should instead design products to stand the test of time with regards to their design intent and purity.
So what if companies today weighted their plastic design decisions?
Step 1: Utilize bioplastics on commonly and quickly recycled items (Recycle #s 1,2) such as; shrink wrap, milk jugs, packaging, and tags, reserving traditional plastic for longer lasting tools. For those fleeting products, compostable material production needs to start today.
Step 2: Employ bioplastics in the manufacture of all items whenever and wherever possible. (Recycle #s 3,4,5,6)
Like most things in life, the change will come down to price. Currently, biodegradable composites are slightly more expensive than traditional plastics. The good news is that the price has steadily decreased in the past few years, making PLA more affordable. I have faith that, if given the choice, consumers will opt into purchasing goods from companies making products from compostable materials.
Revolutionizing the traditional waste processing plants…plastic to gold
Reduce — The formal inauguration of compostable plastic into our daily lives will allow us to throw all of our plastic into the trash guilt free. There it will safely decompose at the waste management site. Imagine garbage made from only bioplastic and food waste. Recycling produces would be less daunting. Our landfills would turn into gold mines instead of toxic turbines of methane waste rotting under the Earth for all eternity. Instead of burying our trash, we could aerate our trash, letting natural breakdown occur aerobically. This new form of waste becomes rich fertilizer. We wouldn’t only reduce our footprint, we would be creating healthier systems.
Resuse — Old traditional plastic needs to take a seat on the back-burner. We really don’t need it anymore. We can recapture that old plastic from the waste stream and use it for combustion or energy generation. Recycling is insanely energy intense after all. What if we converted old plastic to fuel?
Reward — Local governments can reward businesses for their use of bioplastics and create incentive for domestic production. Imagine the possibility of growing sugarcane in Georgia and converting that crop into usable plastic for local manufacturing (talk about job creation Mr. Trump).
It’s not longer about teaching children how to discard their plastic waste away in the recycling bin — it’s about taking measurable actions to lead our consumer bias towards ensuring we make choices that are best for future generations. We don’t have to live in a world where plastic fills our oceans and we don’t have to avoid it altogether by making everything out of hemp.
You can have your plastic and (not let fish) eat it too.