Toward A Plastic-Free Future

Simply recycling just doesn’t cut it; we need a major lifestyle shift. Here are some options

We have a whole world of plastic that needs to be replaced with other biodegradable materials. We have come to rely on this indestructible modern material for every single facet of daily life. The food you ate today was probably sold in plastic packaging, the vehicle you transport yourself in has plastic components (be that a car, bus, bike, train, plane, boat, kayak…) the computer you are reading this article on, even the charger and the wall socket protector …just look around. 

Bioplastic bottlesPhoto by DalinYebo The anti-plastics movement is now evolving from simply recycling. From bioplastics, to wood pulp, to hemp - alternatives to plastics that can help us reduce our plastic footprint are cropping up every day.

It wasn’t always this way. We have seen an explosion in the last 65 years. From 1950 to 2013, plastic production went from 1.7 million tons to 300 million tons a year. Then consider that all the plastic that has been produced since its inception is still here.  It has not biodegraded, it has not been absorbed by the earth. It is, on the contrary, leaching toxic chemicals and causing destruction to the ecosystem on an unprecedented scale, choking and poisoning our ecological balance.

The dangers are visible, obvious and urgent – and paradoxically, microscopic, out of sight and not of great concern to the mainstream.

As a culture, we have been duped into thinking that recycling is enough of a step in the right direction. Certainly, any plastic we can keep out of the landfills and oceans is great, for whatever time that item is reused or recycled. But it simply postpones the plastic’s destructive path and does not mitigate the damage. It’s estimated only 25 percent of plastic is recycled anyway. The United States has one of the lowest overall recycling rates of any developed nation.

Worse, it keeps us consuming the stuff because we believe if we are recycling, it’s OK.

It is not OK. According to The Davos Report by the World Economic Forum the oceans will contain, by weight, more plastic than fish by 2050.  Seventy seven percent of manmade waste that enters the ocean stays at the bottom. The waste enters the oceans via streams, rivers, drainage and all manner of marine vessels and fishing activities. Looking at the water’s surface, you’d never know you’re looking at a garbage patch. It’s the microscopic plastic particles, small as a grain of salt, which fish mistake for food. The damage is vast: There are an estimated 46,000 pieces of plastic floating in every single square mile of the ocean, the United Nations Environment Program reported.

The anti-plastics movement is now evolving from simply recycling. Today the goal is to radically reduce our collective plastic footprint, with a major shift in lifestyle and some promising new earth-friendly materials. Here are some options

Innovative Natural Packaging: Mushrooms Replace Styrofoam
While polystyrene, known as Styrofoam, takes thousands of years to decompose, a new mushroom-mycelium packaging made by Ecovative Design, can be disposed of simply by throwing it in the compost where it will biodegrade within weeks. It’s solid, does not smell and can be “grown” to fit any package specifications. It’s even edible, but perhaps not so tasty!  Companies like IKEA and computer giant Dell are already using this amazing product.

Hemp
Exciting developments are on the horizon for one of the strongest fibers known to man. Plastic can now be derived from plant cellulose. At least 16 US states have legalized industrial hemp production for commercial purposes and 20 states have passed laws allowing research and pilot programs. Hemp is an extremely efficient crop that grows to around 15 feet in a 12 to 14 week period. It requires few pesticides and no herbicides. The company Hemp Plastic has a composite material that can be molded for any number of plastic items. Hemp plastic is said to be 5 times stiffer and 2.5 times stronger than polypropylene plastic, which is used in everything from packaging, to lab equipment and textiles. There are thousands of plastic replacement hemp products on the market right now, including for furniture, electronics, fiberglass and other construction materials. Even door panels of some BMW’s, Mercedes, and Bugattis are manufactured using a hemp fiber basis.

Renewable Wood Pulp
Innovia, headquartered in the United Kingdom created NatureFlex products.  They look like any plastic food packaging that one might expect to be used for nuts or dried fruit. However they are made from sustainably sourced, renewable wood pulp. They have a high moisture barrier and are fully biodegradable, even in the ocean. In 2010, the company tested its products in seawater and discovered that nearly all disintegrated within four weeks.

Bioplastics
Bioplastics are a new type of plastic made from plants. Though there is much less carbon dioxide produced during production, it does have a product footprint. Bioplastics also release carbon dioxide during the biodegrading process and do not biodegrade easily in all environments. Some in fact, do not biodegrade at all. However, they are less toxic than regular plastics.

Make it Package Free!
Since we can’t easily find products packaged in eco-friendly wood cellulose, hemp or mushroom mycelium in our stores just yet, the best place to start is to be aware of all packaging and make every effort to reduce it.

Beginning in Germany, but now all over the world “Packaging Free” stores are emerging. These stores are designed to sell items in bulk, from pinto beans to hair conditioner. Just bring your own containers, weigh them, fill them up and pay by the pound as you check out. But we don’t have to wait for a new store to open. Many health food stores are implementing this system for the items in the bulk section, so you can say goodbye to hundreds of pounds of extraneous packaging (glass, metal, paper and plastic) right away.

Lauren Singer lives a Zero Waste lifestyle in NYC.  She is one of the founders of The Package Free Shop, a retail store in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. “We offer everything that you’d need to transition to a low waste lifestyle in ONE PLACE,” she says. “For us living a package free life means that we are avoiding single use plastic and disposable products to the best of our ability.”

In the store, you will find products like bamboo toothbrushes, re-useable cotton rounds for sustainable make up application and removal, and remember those stainless steel ice trays? Just pull the lever and the ice pops out perfectly every time. They sell steel airtight food containers, and glass, organic cotton or bamboo replacements for hundreds of household items. Beauty and personal care products are sold in bulk, and in tins and glass jars. They also ship the goods to you, completely without plastic!  All shipping materials are 100 percent recyclable and 100 percent compostable. Even the tape is made of paper.

Search here for packaging free stores in the US and Canada: Litterless
Search here for packaging free stores worldwide: Bepakt

Plastic Product Alternatives
Life Without Plastic is another great example of a one stop online shop for safe, high quality ethically sourced, stylish and earth friendly alternatives to plastic products. You can see how to easily replace all that plastic in your kitchen. Use what you have – but there is no need to ever bring home any more.

Take a few minutes to look online at the thousands of new companies now making the plastic free life practical and affordable. Women’s make up and personal care products no longer require relentless plastic consumption. How about flip flops made from natural rubber? Purrfect Play makes a whole line of plastic free pet toys.

Zero Waste Lifestyle
Zero Waste is a term that rallies the goal that all waste will be recycled, composted, repurposed, and preferably never produced in the first place. There are Zero Waste restaurants and hotels, even stadiums and conference centers. Cities from Buenos Aires to Taiwan to San Francisco have passed Zero Waste Resolutions, with innovative and ambitious plans to reduce consumption, extend recycling, and increase composting.

Zero Waste is a revolution in the relationship between waste and people. It is a new way of thinking: There is no “away” when we throw away. We’re just parking it somewhere else, at a tremendous cost.

With every purchase you make, consider the importance of the Plastic-free future. A few things may cost a few more dollars initially. But the rewards of establishing a new precedent for how we shop, package, eat and consume have never mattered more. When it comes to plastic, it will always be here. Support the alternatives, starting now.

Learn more about the many impacts of plastic pollution at Earth Island’s Plastic Pollution Coalition.

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that hemp grows up to 60 feet in just 90 days. Hemp grows to around 15 feet in a 12 to 14 week period. 

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