Plastics are all around us, inside nearly every product that we come into contact with in our daily lives. Manufacturers favor this material because it can last for years and is easy to mold into practically any form. Despite these benefits, however, plastic can also harm the environment. Not only is it created from fossil fuels, but it is also difficult to recycle much of the time. As a result, researchers have begun to develop sustainable alternatives that will reduce our dependence on traditional plastic. Read on to learn more about seven of the best plastic substitutes.
A unique type of biopolymer (also known as bioplastic), liquid wood offers both the appearance and function of traditional plastic, but without the harmful environmental effects. The base of this material is lignin, a byproduct that comes from paper mills. To create liquid wood, manufacturers take lignin and combine it with water before placing it in an environment with extreme heat and pressure. This transforms the lignin into a composite substance that is flexible enough for the manufacturer to form into any shape, but also highly durable. Already, scientists from Germany have used liquid wood to create children’s toys and containers for speakers.
Perhaps the biggest benefit of liquid wood, however, is that it is completely biodegradable. It is also easy to recycle, since it is made from wood byproducts. As such, liquid wood is quickly becoming the go-to alternative for many traditional petroleum-based plastics.
Some companies are also using silicone in lieu of plastic when looking to create more eco-friendly products. Much like rubber, silicone shares many of the same characteristics of plastic, including its pliability and capability to resist both heat and water. However, it boasts a durability that is far greater than plastic, which makes it excellent for numerous applications, particularly in the healthcare field and in manufacturing.
Silicone can also make an excellent alternative for household plastics such as plastic wrap. One company, Lekue, uses silicone to create a range of sustainable food storage lids. These products maintain their flexibility across multiple uses and do not absorb food odors. Silicone can substitute for numerous other plastic-based products, including baby bottle nipples and insulation.
In the past, most people used glass containers to hold their drinks and food products. Though the world has moved on in favor of plastic, glass remains the more sustainable alternative. As opposed to plastic, glass is made from sand, which makes it free of potentially harmful chemicals. Moreover, glass can undergo the process of recycling an infinite number of times. This makes it easy for manufacturers to turn old glass into new bottles and other products. In addition, people can easily reuse glass bottles and containers for any number of purposes. Glass products may cost more than their plastic counterparts, but they last longer and have a smaller environmental footprint.
Over the years, starchy plants have become another popular source for sustainable plastics. The most commonly used material is corn, which manufacturers can process into a polyester called polylactic acid (PLA). As its name suggests, this material is made from the lactic acid produced when corn undergoes wet milling. Using PLAs, manufacturers can create virtually any product or packaging that would normally be made of plastic. These polymers are particularly beneficial because of their ability to fully biodegrade within a span of 47 days under industrial composting conditions. They also do not let off toxic fumes when they burn.
Corn is not the only starch-based plant that can create effective plastic substitutes. Over the years, researchers have developed polymers out of sugarcane, beets, and potatoes.
Taking a cue from the starch-based plastic alternatives, a team of researchers from the US Department of Agriculture has developed a method for creating a unique film out of milk proteins. In particular, they are focusing on the protein casein, which is found in abundance in milk. Though casein-based plastics have existed for more than 100 years, these materials have been far too fragile to serve as more than a substitute for rare jewelry components such as ivory.
By adding citrus pectin and glycerol to casein, however, the USDA researchers have been able to develop a sturdy, but fully biodegradable plastic alternative. Moreover, this material is edible, which means that packaging made from it could be entirely removed from the waste stream.
Chicken feathers may seem like an unlikely plastic substitute, but US researchers have developed a means of transforming them into fully biodegradable plastics. In order to reduce billions of pounds of chicken feathers going to landfills each year, the research team sought to amplify the durability of the keratin in the feathers. When combined with methyl acrylate, keratin transformed into a plastic-like substance that was virtually tear-proof. Fully biodegradable and taken from a renewable source, chicken feather plastics are one of the most eco-friendly plastic substitutes.
There are also a number of biodegradable plastics available that are helping to reduce the world’s dependence on traditional plastics. One such product is made by Tipa Corp, which took inspiration from the orange peel in their quest to create sustainable packaging. Looking to create a packaging solution that mirrored the biodegradability and protective nature of the orange skin, the company used a unique blend of polymers and other bio-materials to make a flexible, compostable plastic substitute.