In the early 1950s, plastic was a wonder material set to usher in a wave of modern living. Cheap, lightweight, easily produced, flexible, and strong, it had a million uses, and its invention was celebrated as the paradigm of progress.
Unfortunately, very little thought was given to its impact on the planet. Its longevity, of course, was promoted as a feature in the beginning, and while that was certainly true for many industrial or mechanical applications, its adoption by the packaging industry ultimately became a detriment to the environment.
Fast forward 70 years and the ubiquity of plastic is one of the most concerning environmental issues we’ve ever faced. Now, the race is on to find plastic alternatives that are recyclable, biodegradable, or reusable. However, in order to usurp plastic’s reign as king of packaging, it also needs to be cheap, easy to manufacture, and widely available.
Thankfully, innovators and inventors around the world are looking to natural plastic alternatives that fulfill all of these requirements and more. Here, we explore what the future holds for alternative plastic materials.
Despite restrictive regulations relating to licensing in many countries, hemp remains among the most sustainable and renewable natural materials around. Production of the raw material is cheap, with extremely fast-growing times and the ability to thrive in the most challenging conditions.
Turning that raw material into a plastic alternative, however, is slightly more challenging. Hemp plastics are just coming onto market, and while they may not be as cheap as a cardboard alternative, prices are coming down, and it’s hoped that as governments understand the plant’s potential, legislation will be introduced to enable cheaper production.
With some species growing up to three meters a day, it’s easy to see why people are beginning to look towards seaweed as a cheap plastic packaging alternative. By some estimates, just 0.03% of the world’s brown seaweed could replace all the PET bottles we use in a year, plus, with seaweed packaging biodegrading in soil in as little as four weeks and certain products being entirely edible, it’s a win-win in the war against single-use plastics.
In 2019, the London Marathon introduced seaweed-based edible energy drinks “bubbles” that were given to runners as they competed, and the same company has been testing edible sauce sachets. Additionally, one Indonesian startup called Evoware has a huge range of seaweed-based products including alternative plastic bags, cups, wrap, and much more.
When milk is heated and combined with an acid like vinegar, a protein called casein is produced. This protein has been used since ancient times as a fast-drying and water-soluble medium to carry pigments, only being replaced in the 1960s with the introduction of acrylic paints. However, while its use as a paint is now only found within the arts world, today, casein is becoming a viable material in the search for plastic alternatives.
What is particularly interesting is that casein plastic was discovered in 1897. Galalith, as it was named by inventors Adolph Spitteler and Wilhelm Krische, used formaldehyde and casein to create a non-moldable plastic that fell out of fashion during WW2. Today, a French company called Lacptips is again championing casein as a biodegradable and water-soluble plastic alternative, albeit with a different composition from Galalith, allowing easier application to our 21st century needs.
Mushrooms, or mycelium, are seen as an innovative alternative to plastics with a few special features. Not only is the raw material grown without chemicals or pesticides, but rather than manufacture that material into shape, it is grown to the exact dimensions required for any given application. Of course, it’s also fully biodegradable, while being thermally insulating and water-resistant.
In some cases, it’s seen as the perfect alternative to polystyrene packaging used for electronics and other delicate items, and in other applications, it is used as high-end packaging for luxury products. Mushroom Packaging is already growing custom-molded mycelium products for brands such as Bowers & Wilkins, Hudson Hemp, and Openly Human.
Alternatives to plastic must become a priority if we are to continue our consumption-oriented society. As we begin to develop more circular economies and embrace zero-waste methodology, biodegradable packaging will be extremely important.
For more information on sustainability, recycling, and the circular economy, check out the RTS blog. Additionally, if your business is looking for advice and guidance on how to reduce waste and increased recycling contact one of our TRUE Advisors today and arrange a free waste assessment.