The one material that we find everywhere around us is plastic. There seems to be no getting away from it. We use it as containers, utensils, water bottles and plastic bags and everything else you can think of, and carelessly throw them away. As plastic never degrades (at least it won’t in our lifetimes), the world has been flooded with it. We do feel bad about it but wonder if there is an alternative. Now, due to increasing awareness of plastic pollution, there has been a conscious effort by researchers and scientists to develop plastics which are less harmful to the environment. Eco-friendly plastic has been developed, but there’s a long way to go before it can replace the old, undegradable plastic which we have been using for decades. But still, it’s a step for the better. Let’s take a look at some environment-friendly plastic and its uses:
What is Eco-friendly plastic
Eco-friendly plastic is usually derived from plants’ byproduct. This ensures that the product made form this type of plastic will break down in some time. Some scientists use methane from farms and some are experimenting with methane generated in landfills to create a more eco-friendly plastic.
Environment friendly plastic derived from methane released in landfills
Eco-friendly plastic is being made from methane produced in landfills. Imperial College students in London have discovered a method to use harmless E.coli bacteria to breakdown landfill waste to bioplastic or biodegradable plastic. This plastic can be used to make some types of bioplastic products, such as disposable syringes etc, as they break down naturally after being disposed off.
An example of Eco-friendly plastic being developed is plastic made from methane and air. Mark Herrema and Kimmel have formed a company called Newlight Technologies to produce innovative plastic pellets known as AirCarbon. The pellets are produced by mixing methane with some air and putting that in a reactor. Inside the reactor, the mix turns into a liquid. Carbon molecules are pulled out by a biocatalyst, and strung together. This is finally melted into spagettilike strands of plastic and cut into pellets.
The types of bioplastic products which can be manufactured from these plastic pellets are automobile parts, electronic goods, furniture, beverage caps, food packaging etc. One of the first uses of this new type of plastic is going to be cell phone covers for a global phone company.
Eco-friendly plastic is certainly better for the environment, but to derive methane from farming takes up plenty of land, which could have been used to produce food.
Bioplastic from corn sugar
Eco-friendly plastic is being developed from harvesting sugar from corn grown especially for this purpose. The company called NatureWorks, produces Ingeo, a kind of bioplastic, by fermenting the sugar and producing lactic acid. Ingeo is ingenious indeed, as it can be used to replace PET and polystyrene plastics which is conventional plastic that ends up in litter. One of examples of eco friendly products made from the bioplastic Ingeo, are yogurt containers for Activia and Stonyfield Farm. Wal-Mart also uses it for its vegetable and deli packaging.
The bio-plastics are slowly being manufactured in greater quantities to replace toxic conventional plastic. There is however a debate which is raging in the green community. Though they are better than petroleum/oil based plastics, they do take up land, which could have been cultivated to produce food. So what is the alternative?
Can recycled plastic make a difference
Recycling plastic can provide an answer too. But due to the deficiencies of the plastic after being recycled, most of it is unusable to plastic manufacturers. Only 6% of the total plastic waste is recycled into products.
A company called Ambercycle has come up with a better method to handle plastic bottle waste. The researchers at the company have come up with a method to break down PET plastic into the chemical components. These can be made into the plastic resin that still maintains a high quality. If the company succeeds, it will be a gigantic leap towards the solution of plastic bottle disposal and plastic pollution.
Exciting new development: cars from bioplastics
Till now, we have heard about eco-friendly fuel for cars. But now, Ford is collaborating with Coca-Cola to develop the interiors of its Ford Fusion Energi from bioplastic. The plastic is called PlantBottle, which is the plastic composed of 30% PET and 70% plant-based plastic called PTA (purified terephthalic acid). Though the product is not 100% eco-friendly, still it would be more environment friendly than 100% PET.
Methane from natural gas
Methane, which is derived from natural gas, has a much bigger advantage than food based methane. If the natural gas that is released during the production of petroleum is captured, it would reduce atmospheric pollution significantly. It could have a huge effect on global warming and its side effect, climate change. Methane gained from this process would also solve the food-to-fuel debate. This method of carbon extraction would be much cheaper too, experts say. The plastic from this process can be used to produce an alternative to plastic carry bags.
How do you recognize ‘genuine’ bioplastic
There’s a lot of greenwashing going on, as manufacturers are cashing on consumers’ demand for eco-friendly, alternative plastic products. It’s difficult to gauge whether a product is truly biodegradable. Don’t be misled by every ‘biodegradable’ product. Any product that does not mention the time in which the product will biodegrade should be avoided. Here are some tips:
Believe your eyes
If it feels and looks like plastic, it must be plastic!
Check the codes
These are the codes written within the triangle on the pack. Code 7 means it is plant derived plastic.
Avoid oxo-biodegradable bags
These bags which are touted as an alternative to plastic carry bags are actually worse than them. This is because they will break down into microplastics in seawater, causing a lot of harm to marine life.
As there is a greater demand from consumers who no longer want to use plastic products made from conventional plastics, bioplastic research has thrown up quite a few solutions. These solutions can be used to manufacture eco-friendly products which we all feel good about using. But the best solution for the planet is to completely avoid any kind of plastic, both petroleum and plant-based.