Since the introduction of Bakelite, the first fully synthetic polymer, in 1907, plastic has been a cheap and popular synthetic material, largely thanks to its versatility. Various forms of plastic can be found in virtually anything around today: cellphones, our clothes, and even in the food we eat.

Small fragments of plastic break off from plastic utensils, food containers, and straws, causing us to inadvertently ingest them along with our food. Bisphenols present in the lining of metal cans have been tied to developmental and reproductive harm, as well as obesity. Phthalates, nitrates, nitrites, and perfluoroalkyl chemicals found in wrappers and packaging have been linked to cancer and other health problems. In a world where over 300 million tons of plastic are produced annually, how do we reduce our dependence on these materials? The answer lies in our surroundings.

Many small companies and start-ups are turning to nature for plant-based packaging materials. One such example is a Vietnam-based company, Ống Hút Cỏ. The owner of the company took inspiration from a local variety of grass known as co bang, which is long and hollow, much like a plastic straw. The grass is harvested, cleaned, and cut into tubes. The product is biodegradable, compostable, and even edible. The dry straws are also affordable, each one costing only about $0.043. Although the company currently only sells in Vietnam, it is expected that they will expand to neighbouring countries seeking to reduce their plastic straw waste. This is not only good for the environment, it is a healthier option for everyone. Using grass straws reduces the contact we have with harmful chemicals found in plastic. Outside Vietnam, paper straws are already being widely used in place of plastic. Since they are encased in paper, the entire product is biodegradable and safer for consumers. Other single-use plastics, like forks and spoons are also going green. Bamboo and other types of wood are being used in place of plastics, making for a safer and more eco-friendly alternative to plastic utensils.

Plant-based plastics are often touted as an environmentally sustainable alternative to polyethylene terephthalate (PET), but they are not always recyclable or even biodegradable. Bioplastics are made from raw materials such as plant biomass, which is more sustainably sourced than the petroleum that most plastics are composed of. This also means that land and ocean habitats are not further disturbed with the harvesting of petroleum. Biodegradable bioplastics seem like a perfect alternative to PET bottles, but although they are technically biodegradable, this process of decomposing naturally can only take place in an industrial facility. The United States only has about 200 industrial composting facilities, so the majority of bioplastics will end up in landfills, never decomposing and further contributing to the world’s waste problem. Recycling bioplastics seems like the better option, but not all kinds are recyclable, once again forcing well-intentioned consumers to throw them away with regular trash. This is a setback, but it also opens the door for innovation. Before bioplastics can fully replace petroleum-based plastics, we must work to ensure they are fully biodegradable or recyclable.

Reusable utensils, containers, and coverings have grown in popularity over the years, a trend which will likely continue into the foreseeable future. Mason jars, metal straws, and beeswax wrap are not just hipster commodities, they are at the forefront of individual sustainability. Products such as these are durable and reusable, making them perfect for decreasing the consumption of single-use plastics. Stores carry items such as flour, nuts, and rice in bulk, allowing consumers to take their reusable jars and fill them up. This reduces the use of single-use packaging and serves as a more sustainable alternative. Opting for metal straws and reusable utensils are another way in which consumers are reducing their dependency on plastic.

Given the growing popularity of plant-based materials, bioplastics, and reusable containers, it is safe to assume that we are facing a gradual shift away from traditional plastics. In coming years, there will be a reduction in the use of single-use plastics as we look for greener alternatives that are better for ourselves and the planet. While there is still much to be done to ensure that greener materials can be decomposed in a timely manner, there is no denying that it is only a matter of time before petroleum-based plastics become obsolete, making for a greener future.

Essay by: Janet Correa
California Academy of Math and Science

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