Are Alternative Plastics Worth it?

As more and more companies have been switching to plastic, the question remains: are plastic alternatives really worth it?

Do reusable bags or paper straws really decrease our environmental footprint? Or are these substitutes actually even more costly for both our pockets and the planet?

While researching existing solutions to the plastic pollution problem, I was captivated by the hunt to find a material that could replace plastic. It would be a miracle if we could find something just as cheap and just as versatile. Sadly though, non-plastic packaging isn’t without its own environmental issues.

A report made by the Danish Environmental Protection Agency in 2018 explained how many times each plastic alternative would need to be reused to have as low of an environmental impact as single use plastics. Reusable cotton bags, aka. “tote bags”, which we’re so commonly encouraged to bring to the store would need to be reused a whopping 7,000 to 20,000 times depending on what type of cotton was used to manufacture the bag. On the other hand, the “best” alternative, recycled polyester PET, would still need to be reused 35 times. When comparing these materials across all levels of pollution, it turns out that virgin plastic is still a much more “environmentally friendly” option (and I’m using that term very lightly).

(Source: the amazing team at Our World in Data)

After looking through another report from Trucost, I found information to help quantify just how costly the switch to alternatives could be - and the numbers don’t look too good. Back in 2015, the total environmental cost of plastic in the consumer goods sector was estimated to be $139 billion USD. If one were to substitute the majority of plastic used in the consumer goods sector with a mix of alternative materials, this cost of materials would rise to over $533 billion USD – almost four times the initial amount.

Additionally, while the costs for using alternatives like aluminum and steel are actually slightly cheaper than plastic (on average), Trucost reports that the amount of material required to make the same amount of product would be much, much more; 4.1 times to be exact.

Anxious to find something that was even remotely promising, I came across biodegradable plastic bags. And while these are definitely interesting in concept, they’re quite lacking in execution. Plastics labelled biodegradable (eg. shopping bags) will only break down in temperatures above 50 degrees Celsius. The problem is, though, these plastic bags sink in the ocean – making it impossible for them to come into contact with UV rays and degrade. So yes, these “biodegradable bags” simply turn into microplastics in the ocean (Source).

The truth is, it all comes down to what aspect of the environment we care about the most. We will eventually have to choose a material that satisfies the metrics that we deem to be the most important. But how will we make that decision? Who will determine whether ocean pollution is more or less important than greenhouse gases, for example? There’s many questions that we still have yet to answer. For now, at least, it might be best to refrain from fully switching to alternatives until a better solution is found.

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