Public awareness about plastic pollution is growing and as more research on the devastating impacts of plastic comes to light, businesses and policy makers are facing pressure to find alternative, more sustainable materials. The use of alternative plastics, which look, behave and feel like conventional plastic products, are becoming increasingly popular. But what are alternative plastics and are they the answer to the plastic pollution crisis in our ocean?

FFI recently published a great new paper exploring the issue and so we decided to shine our #SolutionSpotlight on the topic. eXXpedition Ambassadors Jackie Nuñez, Susanna Mitterer and Sofia Nogues joined us for a conversation in the SHiFT Community Hub to delve into the reality of these materials.

What Are Alternative Plastics?

Conventional plastic describes synthetic or petroleum-based plastics, derived from fractions of crude oil and natural gas, while alternative plastic describes all non-conventional plastics, including bioplastic, bio-based, biodegradable, compostable, and oxo-degradable plastic. Many of these terms are often used interchangeably, but they are not synonymous. Different types of alternative plastic require different conditions (e.g. temperatures, CO2 levels and microorganisms) to break down so it is important that businesses and consumers understand the key distinctions between each category in order to accurately label, market and dispose of products correctly.

Are Alternative Plastics the Answer?

Alternative plastics are increasingly promoted as a sustainable alternative to conventional plastic. More and more consumer products, such as plastic bags, coffee cups and nappies, are labelled as ‘compostable’, ‘biodegradable’ or ‘bio-based’. But the idea that products made of alternative plastic can simply be discarded and then break down and disappear is simply not true.

Most plastic products labelled as ‘biodegradable’ or ‘bio-based’ only break down when subjected to high temperatures. Without the special conditions of industrial facilities, most alternative plastics take years to degrade. This means they function similarly to conventional plastics in the marine environment where they fragment into smaller and smaller pieces and absorb and release chemical pollutants – posing a threat to marine life and coastal communities.

Another common misconception about alternative plastics is that they can be disposed of in recycling alongside conventional plastics. Even at low concentrations, alternative plastics can contaminate conventional recycling, thereby disrupting the whole recycling process. Most alternative plastics require specific waste management facilities (which are often not in place) to ensure they break down properly. Without them, alternative plastics are likely to end up in landfill where they can take just as long as conventional plastics to break down.

The production of alternative plastics also requires a huge amount of land and energy. As demand for alternative plastics increases, more land will be required to grow raw materials such as corn, rapeseed and wood, increasing pressure on agricultural land which could otherwise be used for food production. The scale of the additional manufacturing, and the industrial processes required to manage the end of life of alternative plastics (based on the current systems) could also lead to increased production of harmful gases such as methane.

So, are there any benefits? 

While alternative plastic is not a silver bullet solution to the problem of plastic pollution, it can be a small piece of the jigsaw puzzle in some circumstances. 

For example, in the environment biodegradable and bio-based plastics can be used for fishing nets and protection tubes used in tree planting. While in medicine bio-based plastics are a fantastic alternative to conventional plastic for stay sutures which are placed during operations to hold or manipulate the operating area. Slow release drugs are also delivered through biobased delivery mechanisms.

Next steps

It is clear that alternative plastic is a hugely complex arena. At present it is unregulated, underdeveloped, underfunded and full of misinformation and miscommunication. 

Personal actions individuals can take to ensure they make sustainable choices when it comes to plastic include declining single use plastics (regardless of the material), paying more attention to what can truly be recycled and composted, and participating in reusable initiatives such as the Loop initiative in the UK. 

The role of the consumer is powerful and as demand reduces, the production of unnecessary products will eventually reduce too. The responsibility for changes cannot solely lie with the consumer though. From individuals through to industry, policy makers and government, the need for better understanding and education around alternative plastics is required to influence and generate the changes needed. Mythbusting campaigns, glossaries highlighting key words and symbols to look out for on products to help consumers understand how to dispose of items are all powerful tools to start to effect change. It is also paramount that efforts are focused on moving toward a circular economy to avoid waste and keep materials in use for longer.

As people become better educated, the changes in policy, regulation and funding will follow.

More about our panellists 

Jackie Nuñez – Jackie created the No Plastic Straws movement when she founded  The Last Plastic Straw in 2011. She is a part time kayak guide/ adventurer and a full time activist living in Santa Cruz, California, where she teaches people of all ages how to speak truth to plastic and be an agent for change in their communities.  

Susanna Mitterer – Susanna worked in the polymer & packaging sector for 15 years which has given her a unique insight into manufacturing processes, supply chain, raw materials and recycling / closed loop issues and challenges. She is an advocate for reducing all unnecessary plastics from our lives and finding new and more sustainable ways to package products where it is required. Susanna is currently researching ways in which we can transform the industry from within to become more responsible and truly engage in creating a circular economy whilst at the same time moving away from fossil fuel (and some bio based) materials to reduce environmental impacts at all levels.

Sofia Nogues – Sofía is a passionate storyteller, she studied journalism because she strongly believes in the power of communication and how things can change depending on how we tell the story. She’s also passionate about the sea and protecting it. Sofía grew up next to the Mediterranean sea in Barcelona and over the past few years, she’s been on a mission to reduce plastic waste, trying to persuade everyone around her to do the same thing. She currently works as Senior External Communications Manager at data analytics company Clarivate, where she worked on a research paper on bioplastics: From the plastics present to a sustainable future.

More about SHiFT Hub Events

eXXpedition runs regular events for our community and beyond. Keep an eye on our social channels for updates on upcoming public events, and browse our blog to find out the highlights of our community events and keep up with eXXpedition news.

Thank you to 11th Hour Racing who are supporting this work.