Why progress on plastic feels slow

Maurizio Siani, Getty Images

It’s hard to predict a disruptive technology. It’s even harder to predict disruptive technology when the industry in question produces a ubiquitous tool.

How do you possibly disrupt plastic?

From grocery bags and food wrappers to Amazon packaging and the household items we use on a daily basis, plastic is so omnipresent that it would take something truly brilliant — and some help from the government — to replace it.

The Tipping Point

With every passing day, the plastic pipeline does more and more damage to the world around us. It’s borne of one of the most environmentally harmful industries — oil — demanding up to 10 percent of the total supply produced in a year. From there, 50 percent of what’s processed in becomes single-use plastic that is ultimately discarded. That comes in three forms: The landfill, recycling, or incineration. In the landfill, plastics remain unchanged. Synthetic polymers don’t break down, which causes issues with microplastics becoming increasingly present in our lives. Incinerators burn plastic and release thousands of pollutants, typically near low-income and non-white populations. Recycling has few advantages to businesses, with high cost and low value. The business model isn’t lucrative without government subsidization. Ultimately, only about 10 percent of recycled plastic is actually recycled into something else. And everything that doesn’t end up in one of these three options can be found in our forests, our rivers, our oceans.

The environment is feeling the pressure, and so are we.

Inspired Innovators at Work

As pervasive as the plastic crisis is, there is a significant amount of innovation in the world of bioplastics, in start-ups providing alternatives, and in scientific advancements.

At the top of the sustainability pyramid is reduce, which websites like Earth Hero and Life Without Plastic are aiming to address. They provide a single source of truth for people looking to opt into lower-waste lifestyles, with reusable alternatives for many items that we consider to be only single-use (including paper towels, utensils, and more).

But realistically, a consumption-driven society such as ours in the age of Amazon will never completely eradicate the need for single-use plastic and packaging. That’s why bioplastics are gaining traction, with alternatives including mycelium plastic (which is good for shipping packaging), hemp plastic (good for heavyweight plastic goods), and seaweed plastic (good for lightweight food packaging).

Bioplastics get their polymer structure from cellulose in plants, which makes them a much more sustainable alternative to synthetic polymers (which never truly break down). They’re not perfect — they still take a while to break down and need specific conditions to do so — but it’s a start. And scientists are now developing enzymes that help to break down both bioplastics and traditional plastics.

For now, commitment to sustainability is ultimately up to the individual. But increasingly, the individual isn’t left to figure it out alone. From bioplastic alternatives to start-up composting companies that will come collect your food scraps and compost them for you, there’s more and more community support for people looking to go green.

Built-In Roadblocks

There’s a reason progress feels slow: It is. Many of these companies are still too small to scale production in a way that enables mass adoption. But even so, widespread demand isn’t there yet.

The bigger issue is the way that demand is incentivized. Since plastic is made from oil, it’s in the government’s best interest to encourage and subsidize plastic production and use. Each year, the oil and fossil fuel industry spends over $265 million in lobbying the government. Historically, it’s paid off — in 2015 alone, fossil fuel companies received $5.3 trillion in subsidies from countries around the world.

It’s an issue bigger than the individual can tackle, deeply ingrained in the way our economy is structured. Even if it wasn’t, switching to bioplastics, reducing consumption, and composting are by no means the cheap, convenient ways of living. Those actions take intentionalism and commitment.

But as new players emerge, bringing eco-friendly technology and challenging our long-held perspectives on consumerism, people and processes can begin to change. It all starts with empowering individuals, but those individuals will soon impact larger change in business and in societal expectations. Maybe the future is hemp or maybe it’s seaweed, but it sure can’t be oil.



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