The Atrocity of Plastic Waste
Walking into my AP Environmental Science class for the first time, I was greeted by the unsightly image of 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic. Repulsed, yet intrigued, I went closer to look at this astonishingly horrendous collection of garbage. Weighing at just about 87,000 tons, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is one of the largest marine collections of trash in the world. A vortex of plastic waste and debris, this patch weighs more than 43,000 cars and is mainly composed of small particles in the ocean.
With this soupy mirage of ocean in the foreground, my teacher began to describe the process of photodegradation that created the patch. The patch is composed of millions of single-use plastics, each of which has slowly been broken down by the sun’s energy into tinier and tinier pieces. As the debris has piled up, the incoming plastic bags and water bottles have added to this mess and collected in a spiraling shape at the intersection between major currents in the North Pacific Ocean.
Though one of the most notable cases of marine trash, the garbage patch is not alone. There are hundreds of these garbage patches collecting across our world’s oceans. As consumers and companies continue to utilize single-use plastics, these garbage patches will grow both in number and size. In fact, scientists have estimated that there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050. As we consider these disturbing details, we must also consider the real issue with these plastic collection sites.
Problems with Plastic
Plastic has an incredibly long life, taking up to 450 years to break down. This process is perhaps more harmful than the plastic itself as the breakdown process releases chemicals and microplastics that then float through the oceans and harm marine life. Microplastics are especially dangerous for marine life as marine animals unknowingly consume millions of these microplastics throughout their lifetimes. As the microplastics are ingested, many marine animals can experience digestive and endocrine problems while also facing the possibility of microplastic buildups blocking their food entryways. In a society that produces 300 million tons of plastic annually, half of which is single-use, we must consider the impacts of these plastics on our marine ecosystems.
As if harming our marine life isn’t enough, plastics are also incredible polluters. Many plastics are petroleum-based, meaning that their production relies on the use of petroleum. A well-known GHG-producer, petroleum is one of the leading emissions causing global warming and ozone destruction. Many drilling sites for sources of plastic also employ the use of fossil fuels to power their engines. As more carbon dioxide is released, it reflects the Earth’s radiation back to the surface and reheats it, leading to increased global warming.
Many modern movements, such as Greenpeace, have attempted to evoke interest in sustainable choices. Encouraging people to create the movement to sustainability, environmental groups have promoted the “reduce, reuse, recycle” slogan. As environmentally-conscious people band together, many have started the trend to avoid plastic straws or avoid plastic wraps in favor of paper packaging. While this has inspired some government action, such as California’s plastic bag ban, it is simply not enough. As consumers, our choices make minute impacts in relation to the large-scale change that could be brought about by the producers of this horrifying cycle.
While limiting personal plastic use is admirable, it will not solve the plastic crisis. What is sincerely needed is a world-wide effort by major corporations to push for more sustainable packaging and limited single-use plastic generation. Many companies have already started to do so as Starbucks is swapping many of its plastic straws for paper straws, Disney has eliminated single-use plastic straws, and McDonalds in the UK has traded the majority of its plastic use for paper. As companies continue to consider sustainable packaging options, many budding markets have started to employ the natural world for our packaging purposes. Here are five innovative sustainable packaging solutions:
1. Olive pits
Many countries that produce lots of olive oil have been accumulating a major byproduct: olive pits. Some companies have started to utilize these olive pits to create a range of bioplastic granules from the olive seeds. These products are bio-based and partially biodegradable solutions to plastic packaging. And the best part- they decompose in less than a year!
Though this may seem strange, mushrooms are incredibly resilient and biodegradable and they contain fungal mycelia-based materials that create little to no toxic byproducts. Emerging fashion companies have begun to use these mushroom substitutes as fine mycelium leather substitutes derived from the cellular microstructure of mushrooms. The mushroom mycelium is a strong, versatile, and sustainable method for packaging as well as clothing.
3. Pressed Hay and Banana Leaves
Pressed hay and banana leaves are highly sustainable and compostable packaging alternative to wrap goods and products. In the supermarket, pressed hay can be used to ship eggs and other fragile items while banana leaves can replace the plastic packaging to wrap fruits and veggies. Though relatively new in the industry, these forms of packaging are gaining popularity as the use of sustainable wrapping becomes more common in our supermarkets.
4. Corn-based Plastic
Corn produces an acid called polylactic acid, which works as an adhesive to the creation of corn-based plastics. Made from a renewable source and thus recyclable, corn-based plastics can be used for large-scale packaging purposes. Many corn-based plastics are shaped into fluffy resin pellets. Their shape is very malleable and allows distributors to create versatile packaging arrays as a result.
5. Casein (a Milk Protein)
Casein is a protein found in milk. It can be used to create biodegradable, sustainable, and even edible packaging products. The film created by casein can replace plastic film and is just as effective in preventing food spoilage or product degradation. Not only that but casein products are nearly 500 times better than plastics at keeping oxygen away from food. Though this industry is relatively new, casein packaging production has proven to be much more environmentally-friendly and effective than plastic packaging thus far.
Everyone knows that market pressures are what drive entrepreneurship and innovation. If we, as consumers, begin to apply our powers to pressure our producers to make more sustainable packaging, we can continue to inspire diversity and innovation in regards to packaging products. With a shift in consumer mindsets towards the more environmentally-friendly solutions, we can strong-arm companies into abandoning the plastic use of the past by rethinking designs to source sustainable materials and focusing on biodegradable and sustainable packaging solutions. The future of sustainable packaging looks very bright as many groups are continuing to look for sustainable, earthy ways to package our goods. Many of these new innovations are discovered as byproducts to modern processes, such as sugarcane processing. Bagasse is a pulpy substance that is a byproduct of sugarcane processes. Not only can it work as a substitute for paper and wood, it can also act as a biofuel. Used in many containers, bagasse is thick, sturdy, microwave safe, and promising for the future of biodegradable packaging. As companies follow in these footsteps, the future of sustainable packaging looks bright.
Continuing the Fight
Though we have much to look forward to in terms of sustainable packaging, it is important that we do not let go of the pressure now. Consumers must continue to demonstrate their desire for environmentally-friendly solutions through their buying habits. Activists must continue to pressure legislatures to enact environmentally-friendly policies for both people and companies. Entrepreneurs and corporations must continue to center their focus to innovate and redesign current plastic models. I hope one day students can walk into their environmental science classrooms and see cleared-up version of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This future is possible, achievable, and reachable; it is now up to us now to decide if it obtainable.
Essay by: Victoria Dinov