We know plastics are terrible for the environment, there’s a huge patch of mostly plastic garbage in the Pacific Ocean that covers more than 600,000 miles, yet we still use plastic packaging for just about everything as if nothing’s wrong.
It’s true, since the 1950s humans have produced about 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic. Every year, eight million metric tons end up in the ocean. Globally, only 9% of plastics are recycled.
And with the coronavirus crisis, we’re relying on single-use plastics now more than ever, for masks and gloves to take-out containers. But it’s not just a waste problem. Plastics and fossil fuels are inextricably linked.
Both the production and the disposal of plastic is a major climate change issue. Plastic is mostly made from chemicals and ethane, which is a byproduct of hydrofracking.
Founder, Beyond Plastic
And as the world tries to move away from fossil fuels, oil and gas companies are increasingly relying on plastics to make money.
The rise in electric vehicles will mean that the oil demand from the transportation sector will diminish as we go through the next 15, 20 years.
Head of applications
Fibres,Firm and Flexible Packaging
And so when those companies look for their growth drivers, they’re looking at petrochemicals. And petrochemicals mostly means plastic. No doubt plastics are useful. They can help make lifesaving medical supplies, lightweight, fuel-efficient car parts and insulation for our homes.
This material is extremely versatile, it’s durable, it’s easy to produce, it’s cheap to produce. But as the environmental impacts become more and more obvious, there’s a growing demand for alternatives. You’re not going to solve this problem by appealing to anyone’s better nature. But what if somebody comes up with a better science? That’s what a number of companies are trying to do. From mushroom packaging to advanced fibers to plastic-free online grocery stores. Mushroom packaging will return to the Earth in just 45 days. Footprint exists to create a healthier planet.
There is an environmental solution that is cheaper. The first man-made plastic was created in 1862, but it wasn’t until the Second World War that the industry really took off. Polyethylene was initially used by the British to make their planes lighter weight , while the U.S. military used nylon to create strong parachutes and ropes. Plastics production in the U.S. grew 300% during the war, and afterwards manufacturers sought out new markets.
Plastic began to replace steel in cars and paper and glass in packaging. And it wasn’t really until the 40s, 50s where we saw companies such as Dow Chemicals and DuPont start to enter the market, that the emergence of plastic and the linear consumption model of make, consume and dispose really come to the forefront. But the public was gradually becoming more environmentally conscious. And as plastics waste piled up, concerns escalated. Then in the 1980s, China came to the rescue.
As the country globalized and the economy grew, China began importing nearly half of the world’s plastics since cheap labor allowed producers to profitably recycle it. The U.S. began sending most of its plastic waste overseas, and the domestic industry flourished. Half of all plastics have been made in the past 15 years. But in 2018, China stopped accepting our waste since much of it was too contaminated to be repurposed. So China said, we’re closing our doors permanently to U.S. recyclables, which resulted in a real scramble, including lots of plastic being shipped around Asia, where there was not a solid waste infrastructure to accept all of that.
Now the U.S. is being forced to confront the magnitude of its plastics problem. And though we lack the infrastructure to recycle the majority of our plastics, the domestic industry continues to grow, generating over 450 billion dollars in revenue annually and employing nearly a million people. The volumes are simply just stacking up at home and it’s becoming untenable. In Western Europe and China, plastic is mostly made from oil , while in North America and the Middle East, plastic is primarily produced from natural gas, using ethane as the building block.
After ethane is extracted during the drilling or fracking process, it’s sent to processing facilities called ethane crackers, where it’s heated to extremely high temperatures and turned into ethylene and eventually polyethylene, the most popular plastic in the world. With the oil and gas industry looking to plastics as its next growth market, 210 new petrochemical facilities and expansions have been built in the United States in the past decade, with an additional 133 under construction or in the planning phase.
These plastic facilities are being built to help service a growing middle class. People around the globe are rising out of poverty and demanding better medical care, improved personal care items, cars and other kinds of things that plastics are going into and improving those applications. Plastics can make consumer goods cheap and durable, but others see a less rosy picture. The consumer demand for plastics is not going up.
That buildout is actually being driven by the oversupply of cheap gas and cheap oil into the market. Plastics emit greenhouse gases as they languish in landfills, but the production facilities themselves also pose pollution concerns. So if plastic production continues to expand, by 2030 the greenhouse gas emissions from plastics production will be the equivalent of the greenhouse gas emissions from 295 new 500 megawatt coal plants.
Of over 300 million metric tons of plastics produced annually, n early half of that goes toward single-use items. Some of these products we do truly need, like syringes, vials and plastic gloves. But when it comes to stuff like disposable bags, cups, silverware and bottles, many say there are eco-friendly alternatives, we just need the investment and political will to make them mainstream. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as just returning to our pre-World War II way of life.
If you package food with cardboard, it won’t stay fresh for long. Metals are heavy, glass can shatter and paper is easily damaged. Basically, plastics became popular for a reason. There is nothing as cheap as plastic today and there will be nothing as cheap as plastic, we believe, for at least 20 or 30 years. Plus materials like cardboard, paper and glass are actually more energy-intensive to produce than plastics, meaning that choosing a paper bag or glass bottle isn’t necessarily better from an emissions perspective unless you reuse it a certain number of times.
Once you get into things like food packaging, product packaging, that can’t be made into a reusable kind of application, we see the alternatives dramatically increasing greenhouse gas emissions. Basically, we need some better materials. And a growing number of companies are working to make that a reality, aiming to produce truly eco-friendly products, ideally at a price point that can eventually compete with plastics. It’s not an easy task, but one company that’s seen tremendous growth is Arizona-based Footprint.
Founded by former Intel engineers in 2013, Footprint uses biodegradable fiber-based materials to make frozen food packaging, microwave meal trays, meat trays, cups, straws and more. Founder Troy Swopes says their production process is 30 to 40% cleaner from an energy and emissions perspective than plastics production. And the final product is nearly as cheap. Plastics has had decades to get to where they are on scaling and price and efficiency and process technology, those kind of things.
They ’re very immature and we’re already right there next to plastics on price. Its products are fully recyclable, compostable and can decompose on land or in the ocean. The company is already working with many big names like Conagra, McDonald’s, PepsiCo and Beyond Meat .
We’re shipping hundreds of millions of units annually and next year we’ll be shipping billions of units. Then there’s more niche companies, like the New York-based biotech company Ecovative Design, which uses mycelium, the root structure of mushrooms, to essentially grow and bind together custom-molded packages. Mushroom packaging is fully home compostable. It can also be disposed of by just putting it right into your garden, broken up into little pieces. Dell and IKEA have used it in the past, and today Ecovative licenses its mycelium technology to a number of smaller packaging companies in the U.S., the U.K. and the Netherlands.
Now it’s looking to source materials locally in the hopes of becoming more cost competitive. Our goal is to not just work with small, new, sustainable brands. We love them, but we also want to replace plastic foams that are already on the market for larger industrial products. So we know that to be able to do that, we need to continue to focus on getting our costs down. Other companies are also exploring creative materials like the London-based startup SoluB lue and Notpla , both of which are experimenting with seaweed-based alternatives for plastic cups and other packaging. But the most familiar alternative for consumers may be bioplastics.
Made from feedstocks like corn starch and sugar cane, well known bioplastics producers include Fabri-Kal, which makes the Greenware-branded cups and lids, Eco-Products and World Centric. But these companies have received criticism, and Fabri-Kal even faced a lawsuit in Vermont, for marketing their products as 100% compostable.
It’s a questionable designation, considering bioplastics won’t actually break down in a backyard compost pile. On one hand, they’re not using petrochemicals to make the product. On the other hand, it only really gets composted if it goes to a high-temperature commercial composting operation, of which there are very few in this country.
Only about 185 cities in the U.S. even have curbside composting for food waste. And of those that do, less than half accept bioplastics. What’s more, if these products do wind up in the landfill or ocean, they’ll act like regular plastic, degrading extremely slowly. It is a bit misleading. Starting the innovation, t he intentions are good. I think it’s just not quite ready. Enck says that ultimately, there are simpler solutions and that solving the plastics waste problem largely depends upon replacing single-use items with reusable materials.
There are countless alternatives to plastic, and it’s not always exotic, you know bamboo or hemp or kelp. What we really want to do is push toward reusable products, refillable and reusable products. That’s exactly what Zero Grocery is trying to do. The new company, founded at the end of 2019, is basically a plastics-free online grocery store, which delivers items in reusable containers, mostly glass jars and silicone bags.
Customers then leave empty containers out to be picked up by a delivery person and brought back to Zero’s warehouse to be refilled. The Zero concept is pretty simple. It’s something your grandparents grew up with. It’s the milkman , it’s the milkwoman who drops off your grocery bag at your door and takes it away. Zero has been growing exponentially since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, and Strasner says customers quickly see savings that make up for their membership fee.
So our members pay $ 25 a month, that’s the equivalent of $6.25 a week, but the actual groceries they’re shopping are about 10 to 15% cheaper. And it’s because we got rid of the plastic packaging that we can offer those better prices alongside our partners. Companies like Zero, Ecovative and Footprint are making it easier, and maybe even cheaper, for consumers and corporations alike to avoid plastics. But given the powerful fossil fuel interests at play, it may take serious legislative efforts to incentivize adoption and slow the rise of the industry overall. So far, plastic bag bans have been the most ubiquitous example of legislation in this space.
Fifty five countries have imposed comprehensive restrictions on the manufacturing, import and distribution of bags. And 127 countries have adopted some form of regulation. And so when we see 127 countries, which is more than half the globe, taking steps to regulate or limit single-use plastic bags, that translates to me as quite pervasive efforts toward reducing single-use plastics and, of course, stepping stones toward other legislative changes. Eight states, including California and New York, have bag bans. And in recent years, cities and corporations alike from Washington, D.C. to Starbucks have banned plastic straws too.
Ten states also have bottle bills, which provide customers with a financial incentive to recycle beverage containers and cans. Many cite this as a prime example of a policy approach called Extended Producer Responsibility, or EPR, which requires manufacturers to factor in the environmental costs of their products, in this case by making plastic bottles five or 10 cents more expensive. That cost is then returned to the consumer if they recycle. And it’s certainly not just the U.S. that’s cracking down.
Europe has pushed forward stringent legislation voting to ban all single-use plastic utensils, straws and cotton swabs from the EU beginning in 2021. And 34 out of 54 African countries have passed plastic bag bans, making it a world leader on this front. So if those directives, a global ban on single-use plastics, higher recycling rates, actually come into play, the growth in petrochemicals is materially affected to the tune of two million barrels of oil a day.
But Enck says that in order to have the biggest impact, we need to stop production at the source and remove tax exemptions and subsidies for new plastics plants. We need comprehensive legislation to turn off the tap. A nd that starts with not approving hundreds of new plastic production facilities. Bans, Extended Producer Responsibility laws, and ultimately just making less plastic would all incentivize the adoption of alternatives. But alongside this, experts say we need to fundamentally rethink how we shop and consume. What we have to be thinking about is questions as meaningful as how are we designing our grocery stores?
I think there’s a lot of scope for innovation, creating new business models that don’t rely on plastic. And sometimes resurrecting old business models that worked quite well. This means bulk bins and it means mugs, jars and bags that are reused until they fall apart. It means models of reuse existing alongside better technologies, plastics alternatives, that can store food and consumer goods in an eco-friendly way without making consumers pay more. But I’m very worried that we’re running out of time.
We are not facing a situation where it would be nice if people used less plastic. We have a crisis on our hands when it comes to single-use plastic. And so we need people in elected office , we need people who head up big corporations to say they are committed to reducing their plastic footprint. And we can do this.