There are currently 150 million tonnes of plastic floating in our seas and every minute, the equivalent of a garbage truck load is added. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP), the largest of five major garbage patches floating in our oceans, contains the equivalent weight of 500 jumbo jets-worth of plastic.
And despite growing awareness, local initiatives and activism around plastic waste and the environment, the average Australian still uses 130kg of plastic each year. Given the current rate of plastic consumption worldwide, plastic is expected to account for five to 10 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. But beyond that reusable coffee cup you pull out occasionally, there is a new focus on innovative eco-friendly alternatives. From compostable cling film to pasta straws and edible seaweed packaging, the future of plastic is looking more inventive than ever.
A single-use society
The first synthetic polymer was invented in 1869, but the real plastic boom didn’t happen until the invention of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles in the 1970s. PET plastic was first discovered in the ’40s and, after the invention of the PET bottle, became the go-to for safe, reliable and cheap food and drink storage. During this time, bottled water was marketed as essential for good hair, skin and health, and touted to be much safer and better than soft drinks and even tap water. Evian water bottles became a staple accessory on fashion runways and quickly spread to the masses. Today, an estimated one million plastic drinking bottles are purchased every minute worldwide.
Let’s face it — plastic bottles and food containers are super-convenient, but the cost of convenience is inconceivable harm to the planet. A PET bottle takes more than 450 years to break down and, as it does, it leaches potentially toxic and harmful substances into the soil and waterways. Bottled water also takes almost 2000 times more energy to produce than tap water, and multiple studies have suggested that the various chemicals in PET and other plastics used to house food and drinks act as endocrine disruptors and interfere with the body’s hormonal system.
A 2019 report titled Plastic & Health: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet found that “roughly two thirds of all plastic ever produced has been released into the environment and remains there in some form — as debris in the oceans, as micro- or nanoparticles in air and agricultural soils, as microfibres in water supplies, or as microparticles in the human body.” And given that modern plastics such as PET are only a few decades old, we are yet to discover the full effects they may have on our health and wellbeing.
Although plastic bottles were first introduced as recyclable, statistics show that only 36 per cent actually get recycled. Norway is one of the only countries in the world to implement a successful recycling scheme, with a 97 per cent recycling rate on plastic bottles. Of this, 92 per cent is reused again in new bottles, up to 50 times. Given that an estimated 91 per cent of plastic produced globally doesn’t get recycled, there are many Western countries that could learn a thing or two from the zero-waste powerhouse.
Another big offender when it comes to single-use plastic is the beauty industry, which produces an estimated 120 billion units of plastic packaging each year. Aside from packaging, personal health tools that contain microplastics and plastic films, including toothbrushes, cotton buds, wet wipes and disposable make-up rounds, are among the most environmentally damaging elements of beauty waste. A London-based river clean-up team recently discovered that the thousands of wipes flushed down the toilet had created a layer atop the river bed of the Thames — an increasingly common phenomenon in rivers around the world.
But, like community and national initiatives to reduce plastic waste from everyday items, the beauty industry is beginning to make a change for the better and find alternative packaging options. On a mission to reduce the carbon footprint of the dairy industry, Nicole Gilliver, owner of Grandvewe Cheeses and executive director at Ewenique Enterprises, recently launched a minimalist beauty brand that repurposes the sheep’s milk that isn’t used for the cheese.
“Ewe Care was inspired by a desire to test the boundaries of consumer perceptions of what constitutes ethics and sustainability in the beauty space,” Nicole explains. “We set out to create one of the most functional, beautiful, innovative and environmentally conscious beauty products we could conceive, and thus Ewe Care was born.”
Rather than opting for low-cost, high-waste plastic packaging, the bespoke range of day and night cream comes in home-compostable sachets that are emptied into handmade ceramic vessels that double as art. “The choice to go plastic-free was born of a desire to really challenge the industry to think long and hard about the prolific volume of plastics used in beauty,” Nicole explains. “While we understand that many companies are using recycled or recyclable plastics or glass, this fails to consider the fact that as a society, our recycling practices and the recycling infrastructure itself is an issue.” So what about upcycled plastic packaging? Well, as Gilliver notes, there is still a large amount of virgin plastic used in the creation process, which is adding to the plastic problem we are facing rather than providing an answer.
Ewe Care’s answer was raku ceramics handmade by Tasmanian artist Ian Clare. The spherical vessels are a seriously luxurious alternative to plastics, but also add to the entire experience of skincare, which, for many, has become a mindful time to relax, unwind and simply focus on the task at hand. Sitting pretty on a vanity or bedside table, the vessels offer a striking conversation piece. Each one is finished with a marble pattern that resembles sheep’s wool and is completely one of a kind.
“The other major consideration for opting for handmade raku ceramics is simply to force a conversation around thinking about how we use packaging in this space and beyond,” she says. “Slow down. Immerse yourself in the ritual of self-care. Buy it once. Refill it. Place it in your bathroom knowing that it’s totally unique.”
While many small businesses across industries are making changes to limit or completely forgo plastic, somewhat unsurprisingly, many big corporations and global brands seem to be turning a blind eye. According to the Plastic Waste Makers Index, 90 per cent of all single-use plastic generated globally comes from 100 companies, and 55 per cent of all single-use plastic is generated by just 20 companies. At the top of the list are oil giants including ExxonMobil, Sinopec and Saudi Aramco, as well as Dow, the world’s largest chemical company — which is ironic given they call themselves committed to “sustainable solutions for customers in packaging, infrastructure and consumer care”.
And while these corporations should be leading the way to a more sustainable future, it is the independent businesses that are calling for the most change. Ewe Care is among them: “We are a business fundamentally built on the value of sustainability,” says Nicole. “We believe that it’s the responsibility of every business owner to give serious consideration to all elements of sustainability in what they do. Not just nod in the direction, but really stand behind it. It’s not an easy route … we aim to be a successful example of industry leadership in this area.”
Sustainable plastic alternatives
When it comes to plant-based bioplastics, it’s important to note that only 20 per cent of the ingredients used to make the packaging needs to be from renewable, organic materials for the product to be considered “plant-based”, meaning that up to 80 per cent of the product can be made from fossil fuels. You’re probably wondering, what can I use instead? There are plenty of completely eco-friendly, compostable and 100 per cent biodegradable alternatives out there, and plenty more to come.
One of the most efficient swaps for plastic, seaweed bioplastics offer an edible and completely compostable eco-alternative. They are tasteless and odourless and can be used as a substitute for almost any plastic wrapping, including food sachets, soap packaging and even water.
Nopla, a UK-based sustainable packaging start-up, has developed a variety of 100 per cent biodegradable and compostable alternatives including food-grade sachets, plastic-free food containers, dissolvable film and seaweed paper packaging. Its hero product, Ooho, is an innovative replacement for single-use liquid packaging that can be either eaten or composted, with a bubble-like appearance to house your beverage of choice. With plastic-free living on the rise, the seaweed-based packaging market is set to grow 16 per cent between 2020 and 2027.
Cornstarch plastic is one of the most common alternatives to traditional plastic; it looks and acts the same, but instead of petroleum-based polymers, it is made from cornstarch polymers. Most FOGO bin (the kerbside compost service) liners are made from cornstarch, but it is important to do your research as some brands are contaminated with petroleum plastic and aren’t fully biodegradable.
Brands such as Compost-A-Pak are completely plastic-free and Australian-certified compostable for both home and industrial composting. These film bags are also printed with soy-based ink, so no harmful toxins are leached into the ground as the bags biodegrade.
From packaging to vegan leather, mushrooms really are a wonder plant when it comes to sustainability. New York-based sustainable materials company Ecovative Design has pioneered a whole range of mushroom-based products using mycelium, the vegetative part of fungi (the equivalent of plant roots). Ecovative offers two main mycelium technologies: MycoComposite, which produces biodegradable mushroom packaging and eco-friendly building materials (think foam and insulation); and AirMycelium, which provides sustainable alternatives to leather and plastics.
Just when you thought mushrooms couldn’t get any more magical, a Utrecht University study has identified more than 50 mushroom species that fully degrade plastic. More studies are being done around the world to discover the extent of mushrooms’ ability to eat plastic, so watch this space.
Barley and wheat
Barley and wheat waste offer the perfect alternatives to waste that often ends up in the ocean, including cups, straws and six-pack holders. Saltwater Brewery, a microbrewery in Florida, teamed up with agency We Believers to create beer packaging rings made from the waste of the beer-making process in 2016. The packaging disintegrates within two hours of being in the water and is completely edible, so marine wildlife won’t get stuck or ingest any microplastics (although it is important to note that barley is not a natural part of the marine diet).
From straws to children’s toys, barley and wheat plastic substitutes are on the rise, although the added production costs may limit the customer base. But as Marco Vega, co-founder of We Believers, told The Guardian: “If most craft brewers and big beer companies implement this technology, the manufacturing cost will drop and be very competitive.”
Glowing skin, healthy gut, calmer mind, sustainable fashion — what else could you ask for from a single plant? Well, turns out hemp also makes a decent plastic alternative. The plant contains around 60 to 70 per cent cellulose, so has similar properties to conventional plastic. Hemp is also relatively low-cost, is easily harvested, and requires less energy to be made into fibres. While there are limited options for 100 per cent hemp bioplastic, a few companies are leading the way to a greener, hemp-based solution.
Green Spring Technologies has made its mark in the hemp industry with 100 per cent plant-based hemp plastic pens and guitar picks. A few cutting-edge labs such as PFDesignLab and Onyx Composites have created 3D-printed hemp bicycles. With the mission to prove that natural fibres offer a durable and sustainable alternative for synthetic fibres such as glass or carbon, the Onyx Composites model was tried and tested by its creator, German engineer Nicholas Meyer, in a few triathlons.
The cost of sustainable alternatives may be higher initially, but whether you’re investing in a reusable drink bottle, beeswax wraps or plastic-free beauty products, the long-term cost to your wallet and the environment is hugely minimised.
For those of us who are just stepping into the world of plastic-free living, it may seem like a daunting task. But, as Gilliver says, it doesn’t have to be: “Any measure of waste reduction is a step in the right direction. Ask questions. Don’t accept that a label will always be the truth. Be curious. But above all — start.”
Your guide to disposing of plastics
A plastic-free lifestyle can be super-challenging and, for some, simply impractical. So even those who strive to reduce their plastic use may inevitably end up with some plastic in the house. Here’s how to dispose of it responsibly and in the most sustainable way possible.
Kerbside recycling: The yellow bin is for hard plastics, cardboard, paper, glass and aluminium cans. Anything with oil or left-over food (especially pizza boxes) cannot be recycled. Don’t forget to empty and thoroughly rinse out your food containers and milk cartons to avoid recycling contamination!
REDcycling: Soft plastics such as food wrappers, cling film, pet food bags and squeeze pouches belong in REDcycle bins, which can be found in most supermarkets. The plastics are then taken to REDcycle’s Australian-based recycling and manufacturing partners where they are made into shopping trolleys, fence posts and even road base. For a detailed list of what to REDcycle, head to redcycle.net.au/what-to-redcycle
Terracycle: This is for hard-to-recycle materials including empty beauty packaging, blister packs, toothbrushes, coffee pods, stationery and even PPE. You can recycle for free at select stores, buy a Terracycle box for your home or create a local Community Collection Hub. At Terracycle facilities, products are sorted, sterilised and melted down, then remoulded into recycled plastic products. To find out what and where you can Terracycle, head to terracycle.com/en-AU/collection-programs
10 simple swaps for everyday plastic
Designer: I’m not too sure about the use of the equals sign in this list. Any better ideas?
- Toothbrush = bamboo toothbrush
- Cling film = beeswax wraps
- Plastic pet waste bags = compostable green pet waste bags
- Plastic straws = metal, bamboo or pasta straws
- Disposable razor = metal safety razor
- Coffee pods = home-compostable coffee pods
- Plastic takeaway packaging = BYO containers
- Dish sponges = natural sponges and cloths
- Shampoo, conditioner and soap = beauty bars
- Plastic-wrapped toilet paper = eco-friendly toilet paper delivery
Georgia Nelson is a journalist based on the South Coast of NSW and the features writer at WellBeing and WILD. She has a penchant for sustainable beauty, slow fashion and feminist literature.