Humans have created 8.3 billion metric tons of plastics since large-scale production of the synthetic materials began in the early 1950s, and most of it now resides in landfills or the natural environment. Only 9% of discarded plastic is indedd recycled today, 12% is incinerated and 79% ends up in landfills.
The current trend points to 12 billion tons of waste and researchers predict that by year 2050 our oceans might contain more plastics than fish.
Synthetic polymers (commonly plastic) have long been the foundation of packaging materials and they represent a real problem for the environment, since they are non-biodegradable.
Luckily for us, more and more companies have now started to look for ways to significantly reduce waste and find alternative materials to plastic.
For instance, biodegradable polymers such as PLA or PHA are types of material that can be decomposed into natural elements under the action of microorganisms (such as bacteria and fungi) within a short period of time after disposal (a year or less).
Being biodegradable and based on renewable raw materials makes them a great alternative to conventional plastics, but it is still hard to produce them in big quantities to replace all the plastic we are already using. Some other biopolymers are biodegradable but still based on petrochemical raw materials.
Keep an eye on the emerging markets!
Braskem is a Brazilian company producing mainly polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP). While the traditional polyethylene uses fossil sourced raw materials like oil or natural gas to be produced, their most important innovation is the green polyethylene produced with ethanol from sugarcane, 100% renewable source.
Such type of biopolymers, or bio-based plastics, are wholly or partly based on renewable raw materials (biomass). They are not necessarily biodegradable, but can be recycled.
This green PE retains the same properties, performance and application versatility of traditional PE, and several brands are now using it to manufacture their packaging in the whole world.
What if everything started with greenhouse gases?
NatureWorks is an international company that manufactures bio-based plastics as an alternative to conventional plastic, which is most of the time made from petroleum. They launched Ingeo, a new material for plastic and fibers with unique properties. NatureWorks is using greenhouse gases – atmospheric carbon, that is in the atmosphere contributing to global warming – as a raw material. It’s what trees, plants and coral reefs are built from. They are turning carbon into a portfolio of polyactic acid (PLA) performance materials, called Ingeo.
Manufacturing Ingeo produces roughly 80% less greenhouse gases and uses approximately 52% less non-renewable energy than traditional polymers like polystyrene. This incredible material is used for coffe cups, electronic devices and even diapers!
Unfortunately, it is not biodegradable yet. That’s why the company has worked closely with NGOs and Governments to develop a strategy for the disposal and recycling of products made of Ingeo.
“While we view carbon as a problem, nature views it as a resource and an essential building block” Bryony Schwan, The BioMimicry Institute.
Knowledge and information is what we need to share. If governments want to introduce strict regulations like the plastic bag fee, people need to understand why and don’t take it as a punishment but as a chance to be part of the fight.
As for the packaging industry, what we can do is rethink the design of our packaging, reduce single usage plastic packaging, introduce refillable solutions and encourage our clients to use eco-friendly materials for their packaging.