Plastic Alternatives: 6 Amazing Bioplastics That Are Making Waves

Plastic Alternatives: 6 Amazing Bioplastics That Are Making Waves

I’m big on ending fossil fuels. They directly contribute to climate change, all while collectively harming our environment, animals, and people. I’ve never heard of a pipeline that doesn’t leak or exploit the people living beside it; Never heard of a petrochemical plant that didn’t emit toxins into the air; Never heard of a coal mine that emitted “clean coal.” But in order for fossil fuels to go the way of the dinosaur, we do need viable plastic alternatives. Plastic is made from fossil fuels, specifically crude oil, and our society has come to depend on plastic in a number of ways. Plastic has been used to advance science, medicine, and society so I’m not trying to demonize it. Replacing plastic is no easy task, but a lot of progress is being made. Without further ado, here are 6 plastic alternatives I’m genuinely impressed by.

Plastic Alternatives: 6 Amazing Bioplastics That Are Making Waves

Plastic Alternatives: 6 Amazing Bioplastics That Are Making Waves

What can be used instead of plastic?

When talking about what can be used instead of plastic, I should specify in what context I’m referring to. For clarity, I’m specifically referring to plastic-like substances that can be used in place of plastic. So, essentially, bioplastics.

Bioplastics are plastic-like substances that can be made from natural resources such as vegetable oils and starches. Since bioplastics are plant-based products, the consumption of petroleum for the production of plastic is expected to decrease by 15–20% by 2025.

We’ll talk more about what bioplastics are in a second – but what you need to know is why they’re important.

What is a better alternative for plastic packaging?

A better alternative for plastic packaging are most of the bioplastics I talk about on this list.

Plastic packaging is in reference to items like Styrofoam peanuts, bubble wrap, and plastic clampshells. Anything used to protect or ship a package essentially.

Some better alternatives would be using biodegradable cornstarch packaging peanuts, mushroom Styrofoam, and even just compostable shredded paper to cushion an item.

We’ll be talking more in-depth about these bioplastic alternatives later in the post. But honestly, the most cost-efficient and eco way for businesses to package their products is by upcycling.

For example, using old newspapers or scrap paper to protect goods. Or, reusing mailers/boxes to send packages. Tiny Yellow Bungalow is one online business I know that does this (and I love her zero waste inventory!).

What is the controversy with bioplastics?

Before we get into bioplastics, it should be noted that I don’t think they’re the end-all solution, or a perfect one at that.

For starters, the creation of bioplastics still use up a lot of energy and resources. And, certain bioplastics still need actual plastic to be made.

Also, many bioplastics (unless they say they’re home compostable) can only be broken down properly in industrial composting facilities. Not everyone has access to these facilities (I currently don’t!), so most of them may end up in the landfill.

Many bioplastics cannot be easily recycled, as they tend to be made from unrecyclable or mixed materials. The whole purpose of them is to be composted (either at a home or industrial level). But if that isn’t any option, they’re destined for landfill, which doesn’t bode well for the environment.

Truly, if bioplastics are going to succeed, we need everyone to gain access to industrial composting. More home compostable bioplastic options should come out too.

And, last but not least, we need to rely less overall on disposables (that includes ones made from bioplastic!) and shift our wasteful mindset into a more circular one.

Can bioplastics replace plastics?

In a way, yes, bioplastics can replace plastics. There are several different kinds of bioplastics on the market (not all created equal). Essentially, bioplastics are made from plants or other biodegradable materials.

I think at the moment bioplastics are largely used to replace single-use plastic, and while that’s a good start, I’d love to see it used more dynamically. Like in building materials, medical supplies, car parts, kid playgrounds and so on.

In no particular order, here’s an in-depth list of some of the most nuanced plastic alternatives out there.

1. mushrooms ⁠

Mushroom packaging is by far one of the coolest plastic alternatives out there. And probably the most straight forward, in my opinion.

Made with only two simple ingredients — hemp hurd and mycelium — their packaging protects whatever you’re shipping.

It works a lot like Styrofoam, without the waste. It’s also home compostable which is even better because you don’t need access to industrial composters to break it down!

It’s perfect for protective packaging, like shipping out fragile items such as glass.

2. grains

One of the most popular grain-based bioplastics that I love is cornstarch-based packaging peanuts. These compostable and biodegradable peanuts are an alternative to Styrofoam packing peanuts.

Biodegradable packaging peanuts are often starch-based and they completely dissolve in water. This makes it impossible for them to pollute our waterways. Should an animal take a chomp out of them, they’re also non-toxic. And, to dispose of them, you can wash them down the drain or add them to your compost. They’ll break down!

Other grain-based bioplastics include corn and rice. Corn is perhaps the most well known and sturdy bioplastic. It’s what you think of when you picture a bioplastic cold cup.

These are typically able to biodegrade with access to an industrial composting facility. Not a perfect solution, but I can see this being important in cafes with to-go orders.

3. seaweed

Seaweed is an incredibly diverse plant that I’m convinced can do just about anything. Including be made into seaweed packaging! This is a wonderful, home compostable alternative to plastic that has many environmental benefits.

Sway, a specific brand making seaweed packaging, uses the natural polymers abundantly found in different types of seaweed as the basis of all their material formulations.

According to Sway, “these extracted polymers help us to mimic the compelling qualities of plastic, without the downsides. Better yet, seaweed is an abundant, diverse resource that requires no land, fresh water, or fertilizer to grow. Sway materials enable a shift away from carbon-intensive inputs, towards a truly regenerative resource that gives more than it takes.”

Sway has been used to make greeting card sleeves and footwear packaging that biodegrades in weeks (not hundreds of years).

4. shrimp shells ⁠

Harvard University researchers have created a fully biodegradable plastic from shrimp shells. Dubbed shrilk, the bioplastic is made of the main ingredient found in the hardy shells: chitin.

This alternative to plastic could also be used to make trash bags, packaging, and diapers. It’s already being transformed into complex shapes like egg cartons and chess pieces.

Once discarded, shrilk breaks down in just a few weeks and even releases rich nutrients that support plant growth. 

While I do think this is promising, I think my main critique of it would be the possibility of overfishing, and fish allergens (aka, not everyone would be able to use it, if they’re allergic to shellfish).

5. avocado seeds ⁠

A Mexican company, BIOFASE, is transforming avocado seeds into bioplastics. Specifically they are using the avocado pits.

BIOFASE has made biodegradable straws, cutlery, dishes and containers with their avocado pits. The composition of BIOFASE products is 60% avocado seed biopolymers and 40% synthetic organic compounds.

According to BIOFASE, the plant-based content of their products will break down in the ground or in any landfill, unlike plastic.

Again, not a perfect solution (honestly, just opting for a reusable utensil set is best), but I could see this catching on in to-go restaurants.

6. hemp ⁠

Hemp can be used to make bioplastic as well, and it’s a renewable resource. But not all hemp bioplastic is capable of being composted, as some of it is mixed with actual plastic.

By switching to hemp plastic, businesses can achieve 25%-100% reduction in plastic use. Businesses can can choose hemp plastic that uses 100% bio-based resin, and many of hemp plastic polymers can be biodegradable or compostable (just not all).

Hemp itself is also a carbon negative renewable source. It consumes far more greenhouse gasses than are emitted in its production. Just one ton of hemp can absorb up to 1.6 tons of CO2, making it a good carbon sequestration option.

I don’t think of this as a perfect solution to the plastic pollution crisis, but I do see it as a way to cut down on plastic production and greenhouse gases.

final thoughts on these plastic alternatives

These plastic alternatives, aka bioplastics, aren’t a perfect solution to our plastic pollution problem. Especially if we plan on using them the same exact wasteful way we use plastic today.

It takes a long time for some bioplastics to break down, and when they end up in landfills, they contribute to methane emissions (NIH).

Although many bioplastics can be industrially composted, not everyone has access to industrial composting facilities across the United States.

In order for bioplastics to truly be the sustainable choice, we need to give everyone access to proper disposal of them (aka industrial composting).

AND, we can’t rely on bioplastics for everything. I’m a big believe in reduce and reuse: Utilizing more reusables in general, as opposed to anything single-use (bioplastic or not) will always be the most sustainable option.

So maybe lets try offering incentives for bringing reusables (ex: $2 off when you bring a reusable mug), or making bioplastics available on request only. (ex: a bioplastic straw only added to a drink when asked).

Also, FYI, but a lot of bioplastics can present allergen problems. For example, if you’re allergic to mushrooms or shrimp, you probably wouldn’t want to get a bioplastic Starbucks cup made from those materials. So bioplastics need to also be accessible for everyone (especially within the disability community who may rely on items like plastic straws to survive), not just the vast majority.

Here’s where bioplastics can aid us most: Using them for the medical, construction and scientific sectors. Instead of turning it into a single-use product, using them to build our cars, spaceships, and medical needles seems a lot more beneficial to me.

What are your thoughts on these plastic alternatives? Do you support bioplastics? Let me know in the comments.

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By Ariana Storniolo (Palmieri)

Ariana Storniolo is the founder of Greenify-Me, a blog dedicated to zero waste and sustainability. Her work has also been featured on Going Zero Waste, Green Matters, Mother Earth Living and several other online publications.

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