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‘Plastic’ Alternatives: fact and fiction

The Plastic Free July Team | 12 July 2022

Turning off the tap

Our vision is a world without plastic waste. To achieve this, it is essential to ‘turn off the tap’ and address the problem of plastic waste at its source. Whilst our focus is helping people and organisations do this and reduce plastic waste by choosing to refuse single-use plastic it is clear that systems change is required.

Any item or piece of packaging that is used just once – no matter what it is made from or how it is disposed of – is single-use. Avoiding waste in the first place through reducing, refusing, repairing, reusing and redesigning should always be top priority. This is what will be required to shift from the current linear economy to a circular economy.

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, to create a circular economy for plastic three actions are required:

  1. Eliminate all problematic and unnecessary plastic items.
  2. Innovate to ensure that the plastics we do need are reusable, recyclable, or compostable.
  3. Circulate all the plastic items we use to keep them in the economy and out of the environment.

A closer look

When considering alternative packaging materials, it is important to consider the end-of-life impacts if they end up as litter, potential for collection in existing waste management systems as well as their fate in waste processing facilities. Whilst most plastics are made from fossil fuels (oil and gas) there is much confusion around labelling of plastic alternatives such as bioplastics, biodegradable, degradable and compostable, aided by misleading and unclear marketing claims.

When looking at alternative packaging to single-use plastics it is important to consider what an item is made of, where it ends up and how and what it breaks down into.

What’s in a name?

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report Biodegradable Plastics and Marine Litter provides useful information on some commonly used terms for alternative packaging:

  • Bioplastic refers to what an item is made from. Bioplastics are produced from biomass (organic matter), such as sugar cane pulp or cornstarch. This word doesn’t tell you anything about what happens to the item if it ends up in the environment, or its recyclability.
  • Biodegradable items will break down through biological processes (bacteria and fungi) to its component parts: water, CO2/methane, energy and new biomass. The conditions under which it will biodegrade vary widely, e.g. it might require high temperatures that are only found in industrial composting facilities (50+ degrees Celsius).
  • Compostable items are capable of being broken down at elevated temperatures in soil under specified conditions and time periods. Again, this often requires the high temperatures found in industrial composting facilities.
  • Degradable or oxodegradable items fragment partially or completely into smaller pieces of plastic through UV radiation, oxygen or pro-oxidant additives that accelerate degradation.

Seeking solutions

The recent article by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation ‘We need compostable packaging, but it’s still single-use‘ explores how compostable packaging is popularly seen as an answer to plastic pollution but acknowledges “while it has a role to play in a circular economy, it is not a silver bullet. Any time a piece of packaging is used once – no matter how it is disposed of – it is single-use. Preventing waste in the first place should be top priority”.

With growing regulations being introduced around the world to ban problematic plastic items it is important to carefully consider the impacts of any single-use packaging  across its entire lifecycle. As this recent photo shared by marine scientist Dr Imogen Napper of a biodegradable bag still intact after 6 years in the ocean shows, the transition away from single-use plastics needs to be done with care.

Dr Imogen Napper, University of Plymouth with a biodegradable plastic bag after 6 years in the ocean.


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