Reimagining Plastic For the Future of Our Earth
Plastic has wrapped itself around everything we do. It keeps our food fresh, our medical supplies sterile, and affordable gadgets.
It has provided immense value to the world, but like all of us, it is far from perfect. The plastic waste crisis has become increasingly worse, and plastic itself has caught the ire of environmentalists across the world. But is plastic bad, or are we just using the wrong resources to make it?
Traditional plastic is made primarily from petroleum, which takes over a million years to produce. We then turn that plastic into single-use products that we use for just a few minutes. After we’re done, we throw that product away, where it lasts in the environment for hundreds of years and then breaks down into microplastics.
A million years to create, a few minutes of use, and hundreds of years to go away.
This is one of the worst examples of resource efficiency that we as human beings have managed to create. That’s why about four years ago, I realized that there has to be a better way to do this. And so, I dove down a rabbit hole, researching the various ways we have tried to fix this problem. What I found was highly disappointing.
Why Recycling Isn’t the Silver Bullet We Hoped For
Recycling seems like the logical fix, right? If we could just reuse all plastic for eternity, that would effectively fix the problem. Unfortunately, the 50-year recycling experiment we’ve conducted has proven that this solution just doesn’t work.
Despite blue bins peppering curbsides across America, our recycling rates for plastic were under 5% in 2021 according to a report from Beyond Plastics. It turns out, not all plastics are created equal—or I should say, equally recyclable. The sorting process is complicated, the economic return is often lacking, and the quality of plastic degrades with each recycle. So, instead of an infinite loop, we’ve got a system that’s more leaky sieve than full circle.
To make things worse, recycling is also exacerbating the microplastics problem. A recent study on a UK recycling facility showed that their wastewater contained up to 75 billion particles of microplastics per cubic meter. That translates to up to 6.5 million pounds of microplastics emitted from this single facility every year. It seems that we may have inadvertently created a worse problem in our attempt to find a solution.
The Not-So-Great Alternatives
Paper straws are one of the most hated products in recent memory. I have yet to hear a single person say they like them. But consumer dissatisfaction aside, are they actually more sustainable than plastic? A 2014 study by NC State University showed that when comparing the environmental impact of paper vs. plastic bags, paper was significantly worse. Paper bags use double the fossil fuels, create over four times as much waste, emit double the greenhouse gas, and use seventeen times as much water.
Glass is another alternative material with a much worse carbon footprint. It is much heavier and uses more energy to produce, making its overall carbon impact about 5 times worse than plastic. Additionally, the mining of the silica sand used to make glass can cause significant environmental damage.
The Obvious Solution
If the aforementioned alternatives don’t work, and recycling doesn’t either, what do we do? The solution lies in using renewable resources to create plastics that naturally compost or biodegrade quickly, and don’t leave behind microplastics or natural chemicals.
However, it is important that these natural resources don’t create more problems than they solve: they can’t compete with food sources, they must be available at a great enough scale to make a dent, and they can’t be more expensive than petroleum.
Agricultural byproducts are the discarded materials left over from processing our food. Examples include rice husks, wheat straw, corn stover, and more. These materials are very inexpensive as there are very few uses for them, and they are also rich in cellulose, which can be the building block for bioplastic polymers. It is estimated that we generate 998 Million tons of agricultural waste every year. Globally, we produce 400 Million tons of plastic every year. We have more than enough of this feedstock to revolutionize the way the plastic supply chain is constructed and create the circular model that recycling was supposed to be.
Let’s not demonize a material that has done a lot of good for the world. Instead, let’s reimagine the way plastic is made. The fastest and most effective way to solve the plastic problem is to transition to agricultural byproducts instead of petroleum, creating zero-waste materials. We can go from petroleum plastics taking millions of years to create and thousands of years to get rid of, to plant-based plastics taking mere months to create, use, and disappear.
This isn’t a pipe dream; it’s science, it’s economics, and it’s a more thoughtful way to coexist with the stuff we make. At the end of the day, the plastic issue is a human issue—it’s about how we value our resources, our planet, and ultimately, each other.
Dillon Baxter is co-founder and CEO of PlantSwitch, a company whose proprietary technology upcycles agricultural residues into a plant-based resin that is being used to make plastic products for publicly traded and Fortune 500 companies nationwide.