The Age of Oil is also the age of plastics. Since their invention at the end of the 19th century, synthetic, petroleum based wares have inundated the planet. They can be found at every level of the biosphere, from micron-sized beads in our body-care products to continent-sized gyres in the middle of the oceans. As we move towards a future powered by renewable energy, and grow increasingly aware of the consequences of environmental degradation, a new industry of sustainable, biodegradable materials is emerging, one that will one day supplant plastics and radically reduce the waist footprint of modern society.
BANNING THE BAG
At the time of this writing, dozens of major metropolitan areas worldwide have issued an outright ban on single use plastic bags and Styrofoam containers. In places as diverse as New Delhi, Brisbane, San Francisco, Tokyo and New York, (and even entire nations like South Africa and Rwanda) hard-won legislation is in place that will phase out these products in a matter of months. Enforcing the legislation is a different matter – and it will not happen until viable, cost-efficient alternatives are made widely available.
Confusingly, the plastics lobby is attempting to undermine the movement with a disinformation campaign about the supposed benefits of the plastic bag, while ignoring the central issue: that at the end of their lifecycle, these non-biodegradable products end up in landfills, parks, or, worse, in the ocean. Despite these attempts, more and more municipalities are choosing to protect their water and natural environment and are moving away from plastic bags, styrofoam, and other single-use containers.
A REUSABLE FUTURE
A few companies are already breaking that ground and establishing a foothold in this emerging market with compostable, reusable, and inexpensive containers. Founded in Portland, one of the first cities to ban the plastic bag and one of the only to effectively enforce that ban, GO Box proposes to hugely cut down on restaurant waste by creating an easy mechanism for customers to drop off their to-go boxes. It’s already been adopted by nearly 100 restaurants in the area, and is in the process of expanding to NYC and San Francisco. It uses an app-based subscription to monitor boxes and rewards users for introducing the product to new food vendors. There is potential for it to become ubiquitous in its markets within just a few years, and from there, it could easily spread to cities across the country and the world.
Meanwhile, a company in upstate New York is working not just on distribution but on the very materials we use to burnish modern life. Ecovative, the recipient of the 2014 Buckminster Fuller Institute Prize, is engineering a new class of biomaterials based on fungal mycelium — the organic threads that make up the vast majority of the biomass of the organisms we tend to think of as mushrooms. They aim to replace styrofoam and plastic packing materials by growing mycelial meshworks in the same molds. The process is, of course, more time- and resource-intensive than styrofoam, but holds the promise of creating materials that are a net positive on the environment, breaking down into rich compost and able to be reused again and again.
When then-President Obama legailzed industrial hemp at the end of 2015, an entire new industry was given legs overnight. It is likely that oil-based plastics will predominate for the next few decades — but the moonshot ideas of today are tomorrow’s industrial powerhouses. Hemp is an ideal crop to replace plastics in packaging, trees in paper production, and even concrete and slag in construction. Ventures like Australia’s ZeoForm promise an evolutionary leap forward in materials science, creating products that are more durable, flexible, and useful than those they propose to replace, along with mitigating the environmental costs of plastics.
These ventures are just the tip of the iceberg: dozens of new companies are cropping up every month aiming to create a plastics-free future, where nearly all waste is organic and able to return to the ground with no damage to the environment. The day that even one of major tech companies like Apple, Samsung and Amazon decides that enough is enough and moves their packaging to biomaterials, a new standard will be set — and it will only be a matter of time before the whole industry transitions to a sustainable, waste-free M.O.
But it’s not enough to twiddle our thumbs and wait for the masters of industry to make a move: there are steps we can take every day to lighten our load and reduce our waste footprint.
The first and most obvious is investing in reusable containers and bags for grocery, shopping, and take-out. These bags last orders-of-magnitude longer than plastic or paper, and pay for themselves in convenience and reduced waste in short order. Using mason jars at the bulk section of the supermarket or co-op, which have a standard weight, saves even more packaging and is classy and convenient to boot. Taking to-go boxes or Indian-style tiffins with you when you go out to eat might seem strange at first, but they save a huge amount of waste in the long run.
As citizens and advocates for a better world, it is our duty to help every town, state, and country follow in the footsteps of those who have already begun to phase out single-use plastics. This happens by starting petitions, calling your council members, raising awareness in your community, and showing up at public meetings to remind lawmakers of the responsibility we all have to the environment and to future generations to draw down waste and make use of the sustainable solutions that are already available.
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