From water bottles to toothbrushes, plastic is all around us. It is so wide spread many of us don’t think twice about buying, using, or tossing it. In 1907, Leo Baekeland invented Bakelite, the first synthetic plastic derived from fossil fuels. While Baekeland’s invention is viewed as the birth of plastics, it wasn’t until the first World War that plastic was popularized and used in a variety of industries from auto cars to home insulation.
Compared to glass, ceramics or pewter, plastic prevented dents and breakage, and provided a longer shelf life. What we imagined a longer shelf life has turned into an unlimited shelf life, which poses as one of the biggest problems we face today. Plastics end up on our streets, in our oceans and landfills for thousands of years without decomposing. “Of the 78 million metric tons of plastic packaging produced globally each year, a mere 14 percent is recycled.” Plastics leak a variety of harmful chemicals, which pose a variety of problems depending on where they end up. For example:
- Our bodies: harmful chemicals added to plastics pose dangerous health effects to our own bodies when we eat or drink foods stored in such vessels. Microplastics are found in a variety of foods from fish, shellfish, seaweed, salt, honey, beer, sugar and more. They translocate to the lymph nodes, liver, and spleen and can lead to a variety of health impacts including cancer, cardiovascular diseases and more.
- Our animals: plastic that ends up in our natural world is often ingested by and poisons our animals, leading to death or disease and killing our ecosystems.
- Our planet: plastic waste destroys habitats by creating bacteria and transporting invasive species. It poisons our groundwater by leaking harmful chemicals into the earth.
Bioplastic is made from renewable plant feedstocks such as corn, cassava, sugar beet, or cane sugar, rather than petrochemicals. It includes polylactic acid (PLA), plant-derived polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA), and can be mixtures of biopolymers, petrochemical-derived plastic, and fibers — making it unsuitable for home composting and it releases carbon dioxide when it breaks down. It is used by many “eco-friendly” take-away containers like EcoProducts and Vegware (see below). Contrary to popular belief, it is not inherently biodegradable and will not decompose, therefore, “it has the same environmental impact as conventional plastic.” So how is this so-called “eco-friendly” alternative actually beneficial to the environment? It can be recycled. “Most recycled plastics get shredded, melted, and reformed into goods, still eventually bound or landfills.”
Unfortunately, regular plastic and bio plastics are still most widely used in production across all industries, especially food. The pandemic has only inflated our convenience culture, doubling the amount of takeout, and, therefore increasing take away packaging. Thankfully, there are teams working together on the circular economy who “envision supply chains that continuously cycle old materials back into high-value products with emphasis on long-lasting design, remanufacturing, and reuse. To imagine the packages of the future, many designers are looking to the past for inspiration.” Here are a few examples of brands reinventing the wheel with bio materials:
MakeGrowLab turns bio waste into bio material by “mimicking the symbiotic process of nature.” They currently have two materials that are free from PLA, 100% plastic free, vegan, and home compostable. Their transleather is intended for fashion and interior industry, while their scoby packaging is being used for shampoo bars, soap bars, and coffee bean packaging.
Rise has created cellulose-based containers from mycelium that can be used for soups and spices. The containers grow in a week and compost in less than a month.
The Wyss Institute at Harvard has created a clear plastic made from shrimp shells and silk protein derived from insects called “shrilk.” While the material can be used from wrapping materials to creating shapes, it hasn’t gotten to market due to challenges with manufacturing.
Loliware uses seaweed mixed with organic sweeteners, flavors and colorants to create FDA-approved edible cups and straws. The straws withstand 18 or more hours of continuous use and they start to biodegrade once composted.
Skipping Rocks Lab is experimenting with eliminating water bottles and selling droplets sealed with an edible seaweed membrane. Their bio material is also proposed for cocktails, condiment sachets, and used to line cardboard takeaway boxes. It biodegrades in weeks. Future products include heat sealable films, and nets for carrying produce.
The impact of plastics on our bodies and planet has created an abundance of innovative solutions, yet industry is making it hard for these small companies to scale. Some retailers are leading the way with progressive plans to eliminate plastic from specific isles or their stores altogether. In 2018, “127 countries had adopted some form of legislation to regulate plastic bags, yet virtually no countries restrict plastic bag production.” There’s no sense in waiting for industry or law to make the choice. What if we made the choice for them? Caring for our planet means caring with our actions. Our purchase decisions mean more than we think. Reducing our personal use of plastics makes a difference. Your actions count.
I’m Callie, and I’m the Founder & CEO of Nonna Eats, a Boulder (CO) startup dedicated to fostering community through food. I have experience running a variety of culinary teams, as well as web design and branding.
About this publication
This is a series of stories about reclaiming the art of eating and gathering. Through working with the highest quality chefs and producers, we know how to eat well. If you’d like to read more, please follow. Originally posted on nonnaeats.com.