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In this light, it might not make sense to ban plastics altogether but instead make plastics better.
“Rather than going back, it is perhaps more useful to look at innovation,” says Eliot Whittington. “There are more and more companies that are reinventing plastics with additives that help them break down or making plastics that are biodegradable.”
Whittington points to the growing bioplastics industry, which uses starch or protein from plants like sugarcane to generate the basic hydrocarbon materials needed to create plastics. Some of these bioplastics are not biodegradable at all, but others – like polylactic acid (PLA) – can break down over time and some are compostable, meaning they disintegrate entirely rather than merely crumbling into smaller “microplastics”.
One company that has already shifted to bioplastic is British skincare company Bulldog. It has swapped its traditional plastic tubes for polyethylene made from sugarcane.
The new tubes are more expensive but “we still think it is the right thing to do,” says Simon Duffy, the company’s founder.
Another bioplastics leader is Coca-Cola, which two years ago launched the PlantBottle, a PET partially made with Brazilian sugarcane. It too has found that producing bottles from plants comes at a premium, although it wouldn’t share with BBC Capital what this cost was.
Looking at a few examples, however, it becomes apparent just how much more expensive bioplastics can be.
A burger box made from sugarcane for instance, is almost twice as expensive as one made from polystyrene. A biodegradable takeaway fork made from plant starch costs 3.5 times more than a basic white plastic one.
Neither Bulldog or Coca-Cola are using bioplastics that can be considered biodegradable or compostable, instead encouraging consumers to recycle their bioplastics. And, in fact, there is some resistance to the widespread use of biodegradable materials.
“Bioplastics like PLA are huge contaminate for traditional recycling,” says Dick Searle.
Surprisingly, due to rising oil prices, recycled plastic is actually cheaper to use than fresh, virgin plastic made from oil. A tonne of virgin PET costs around £1,000 while clear recycled PET costs just £158 per tonne.
Contamination of PET plastic with PLA, however, can leave the resulting bottle weaker and unfit for use, meaning the whole batch will have to be discarded. As manufacturers try to reduce their plastic footprint by using greener, biodegradable plastics, the risk of mixing with conventional plastics will only increase, potentially driving up the cost of recycled materials.
“Introducing these innovative products in a system that is used to more traditional waste stream is difficult economically,” says Whittington.
It is a problem that will require new ways of identifying, sorting and dealing with plastic materials when they are thrown away to ensure biodegradable materials are kept separate from those that can be recycled.