We live in a world full of plastic. But is plastic really necessary in our daily lives or are there alternative materials that we could use? In this article, we discuss possible natural replacements for short-life plastic.
August, 6, 2019, Bruno, Tabea, Anne, Alejandro and Rovalie
Before looking at alternatives, let us talk about plastic itself. It is omnipresent: We find it in electronic devices, office and household equipment, as well as every kind of vehicle, train, boat, and plane. However, our discussion will focus on the sectors where we use the most single-use plastic: Packaging and tableware utensils. The requirements for packaging are diverse: The goods need to stay fresh, be protected against mechanical damage, and be easy to transport and store. Industries also use packaging to display information and advertisements on products. The cost is also an important factor when it comes to the choice of material. Plastic is cheap, lightweight, and offers protection against water, microorganisms, and corrosion. However, since most of it is not collected and it is non-biodegradable, it has disastrous effects on the environment. Therefore, there is an urgent need to find alternative materials that can compete with plastic on the economic, qualitative, and practical levels while also being ecologically more sustainable.
Some supermarkets in Southeast Asia have already ditched plastic packaging for an alternative material: Banana leaves . Because they are large, thick, and supple enough to be folded, we can assume that they would work as a good protective layer. Let us now take a closer look at their properties. As banana leaves are naturally covered with wax, they constitute a perfectly waterproof material. What is more, they prevent their content from drying out due to their minimal porosity .
They are also very light-weight, which is a crucial point when considering transportability and personal handling. Another upside concerns the scale of production. Interestingly (and surprisingly for most Swiss students of our group), to harvest the bananas, which is done four times a year, the trees are cut. As a consequence, 106 million tons of banana leaves are wasted each year around the world . This means that the raw product is largely available and thus also cheap.
However, as banana leaves are not easily printed on, supermarkets would probably need some plastic for adhering the label. Even then, this solution would still significantly reduce the amount of plastic normally required.
Plastic is known for its good weight-to-strength ratio. But did you know that bamboo has a higher specific compressive strength than wood or brick and a specific tensile strength that rivals steel? It also includes some of the fastest-growing species in the world (910 mm within 24 hours). Besides, bamboo can grow without fertilizers and pesticides, which makes its production cost-effective as well as environment-friendly.
There already exist many products using bamboo as an alternative to short-life plastic, for example toothbrushes, disposable cutlery, cutting boards, serving trays, and drinking straws. As science progresses, new products enter the market, such as lunch boxes made out of bamboo fiber and cornstarch. And who knows, probably soon, we will even find an alternative to plastic wrap made out of bamboo in our shelves.
The Philippines is the world’s second-largest producer of coconut after Indonesia. If coconut shells are generally considered to be waste products, they are already widely used to make native items. But why do we not also use them for other purposes? . In fact, they are readily available in the market and cheaper compared to other materials. They also have a good weight-to-strength ratio and are moisture resistant. Although they are hard, they can be easily cut cleanly since they are not very brittle . Coconut shells could be used to make a wide range of products from tableware to ornaments and could be combined with bamboo to make spoons, forks, and spatulas, while the shell itself could be turned into saucers, bowls, and teacups.
Jute is a long, soft, and shiny vegetable fiber, which is produced from plants of the genus Corchorus . It has a long tradition in Bangladesh, where it has been used since the third millennium. Bangladesh and India are still the main producers of jute .
How could we use this material as packaging? First, the ropes, strings, and sacks made out of jute could be useful for transporting goods. Concretely, their rough surface is non-slip, which, combined with their light-weight properties, would make them even more suited for stacking than the slippery synthetic fiber sacks. Since jute is resistant to tearing, easily dyeable, and breathable, it can constitute a great alternative to plastic packaging . The porosity of jute can be considered both as an up- and downside of the material. While it offers breathability and is thus suited for agricultural bulk packaging, it does not offer protection from small insects and microbes and does not prevent the product from getting wet.
Still, jute has a bright future ahead of itself. Its properties even grabbed researchers’ attention for a very innovative project in which they are interested in building airplane panels using eco-friendly bio composites . Would you expect jute mixed with sugar to give such promising results?
Wood is the hard-fibrous material generated from tree or shrub that can be used to make pulp and paper. According to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), the Philippines, based on its average consumption from 2006 to 2014, requires 6M m3 of wood annually – a number which should increase in the succeeding years .
Wood pulp is the fiber treated chemically or mechanically to form paper. Mechanical pulp uses grinding stones, while chemical pulp uses chemicals to cook the fiber . Both are hydrophilic, stackable, highly porous, and fast-degrading compared to plastic. The former is used in low strength paper (e.g. newspaper), while the latter is used in fine paper (e.g. bond paper). In terms of price, chemical pulp is more expensive compared to mechanical pulp because of its energy requirements during production . Paper is usually used for printing or packaging for dry goods as a substitute for plastic. Furthermore, the addition of resin or natural wax can allow it to be used as packaging for wet goods.
Alternatives exist, mainly on a small scale, and most of them are affordable and even very attractive in the long term since they are reusable or have a longer life. But there is, at least so far, no miraculous material that could replace plastic. Thus, for every use of plastic, we need to find an alternative material that corresponds to its specific requirements. Since it is not subject to debate that we have to drastically reduce our plastic pollution, we need to change our way of thinking and acting. We need to adapt our habits and we need everyone to realize the gravity of the matter. Indeed, it is necessary to adapt our whole way of consuming in order to eliminate the superfluous uses of plastic in our lives before we look for alternative materials, which, although they surely can help us a lot in our quest for sustainability, surely will not completely save us from plastic pollution.
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Layout: Rovalie Tamayao
Jute bag: https://www.oceaniclink.com/product/jute-bag-1216cm/
Banana wraps: https://busy.org/@maleek/banana-leaves-as-a-traditional-wrapper-2017930t192750948z
Bamboo straws: https://cdn.shopify.com/s/files/1/0203/1620/products/056570_straws_2018_RESIZED-bambu_800x800.png?v=1553275377
Paper rolls: https://www.kilby.co.uk/protective/paper-rolls-and-sheets/kraft-paper-rolls/
Bamboo toothbrush: https://mabboo.com/products/bamboo-toothbrush-brown
Coconut bowls: https://www.ebay.com/itm/Coconut-shell-Bowl-Coconut-Bowl-Real-Organic-Coconut-Shells-2-BOWLS-2-SPOONS/333144477927