Why is There a Desperate Need for Alternatives to Plastics?
Plastic needs to go! The global burden of plastic-waste is in the order of billions of tons. The first synthetic plastic (not derived from plants or animals) was made in 1907, by Leo Backeland, who also invented Bakelite from fossils. Plastics seemed to be the ‘magic’ materials: durable, robust, malleable, long-life, inert and non-degradable. That century saw plastics being consumed world-over in every industry. This ‘opened the flood-gates to the now-familiar-synthetic-plastics’.
However, living organisms could not parallel in evolving so quickly to consume, digest and metabolize these new, man-made, tough polymer-materials. This has led to an amassing of plastics on earth, for centuries to come, without decomposing or degrading, dangerously encroaching all ecological niches and different ecosystems. This leads to the detrimental exposure of living organisms, forests and oceans, and food chains, an accumulation of plastics everywhere.
In the ocean, the accumulated plastic has formed a ‘spinning vortex of marine debris’. This has formed a patch of rubbish in the sea, called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This patch has affected even the bottom of the food chain – algae and planktons in the ocean - by blocking the sun’s rays and stopping them from producing their nutrients.
Plastic bags, being look-alike phantoms of jellyfish, are consumed by sea turtles; they are incapable of spitting out the bag. Burnt plastics, micro-plastics in drinking water and seafoods have all found a way back to humans too. There is evidence that even babies are born pre-polluted!
Plastic pollution has become an environmental and social justice issue. This clock is ticking and before it’s too late, plastics need to be recycled (currently, a mere ~10% gets recycled), and largely replaced with alternatives. Bioplastics are excellent candidates to replace plastics as they are similar to plastics in their utility but are made from bio-sources and are degradable. Comparatively, bioplastics are a huge burden off the ecosystem. The global bioplastics production capacity is estimated to go up to 6.1 million tonnes in 2021, owing to the eco-friendly drive (in 2016, it was 4.2 million tonnes).
How Seaweed and Popcorn Help the Packaging Industry as an Alternative to Plastics?
Researchers have tried to make bioplastics from a wide range of materials such as cellulose, casein (milk), bacterial sources, wood, cotton or hemp cellulose, cereals, sugarcane, and other plants. However, the bioplastics needed in place of plastics used in the packaging industry meets massive challenges. Packaging is an integral part of the business world – driven by purpose, and also marketing and cosmetic need. Reducing the carbon intensity of materials used in packaging is one of the challenges of Bioplastic Feedstock Alliance: its founding members are some of the leading companies of the world, such as, The Coca-Cola Company, Danone, Ford, H.J. Heinz Company, Nestle, Nike, Inc., P&G, Unilever and World Wildlife Fund. Global ‘plastic packaging’ market size is expected to reach USD 269.6 billion by 2025. Suitable plastic alternatives for use in packaging industry have been found in seaweed and popcorn!
In 2010, Remy Lucas, with his petrochemical industry experience, founded ‘Algopack’, which is made from brown seaweed powder with plant additives to make end products that would replace plactics. Algopack is entirely made from seaweed; it is dark brown in color. Bulk-dying the product is possible but it cannot be transparent.
The advantages of using seaweed as bioplastics, especially in the packaging industry are multitude. Though seaweed is seasonal, it is a natural resource existing in unlimited quantities and can be easily farmed. Seaweeds do not require fertilizers or pesticides; only little water. Seaweed is easy to harvest from the sea and the by-products of it are also useful. Seaweeds take 12 weeks to degrade in soil and 5 hours in sea.
Another project developed Seabioplas, using sustainably cultivated seaweeds as feedstocks for biodegradable bioplastics from fish farms in Ireland and Portugal.
The other biomaterial alternative for packaging plastic is popcorn. Popcorn is 60% lighter than shredded paper (usually used for making packaging material) and hence it takes 10% less energy to transport. After use, the popcorn packaging goes into the compost bin! The idea of using popcorn for packaging plastics was initiated by a Dutch computer firm in 1990. However, back then, the idea did not take off. Currently, companies are interested in this robust, clean and brilliant packaging material. Though the rats might like the idea of popcorn packaging, taking small measures to avoid rat-infestation may on the other hand go a long way towards a greener planet.
One of the important strategies in addressing the plastic pollution is to tackle the problem at the source – demand feeds supply. A shift in the type of materials used by consumers and manufacturers, especially in the packaging industry, will bring about a change in the kind of debris we leave behind long after we are gone. Bioplastics made from materials such as seaweed and popcorns seem to be one of the answers for better ecosystems on our earth. A packaging plastic revolution is in the making.