By George Harvey
Deny it or not, most of us really love plastics. They can be inexpensively molded into an enormous number of shapes that would cost a fortune to make any other way. As clingy sheets or zip bags, they keep food fresh and prevent evaporation. Plastic pipes do not decompose easily, plastics insulate electric lines. Everything from toys to car bodies is made with them. They can be easily cleaned. The list of good things about plastics goes on and on and on.
So why do we hate them? Perhaps, it is because they are awful, destructive materials that are used to make things that are junk to begin with, are thrown away too easily, clogging up nature. As they are, their use is unsustainable, and it is clear that to live sustainably we have to get a grip on our love affair with them.
To start with, the plastics we produce are nearly all made from fossil fuels. They are also mostly made with wildly poisonous kinds of chemicals, plasticizers being examples. Most plastics fail do decompose well. Many of them produce dioxin or cyanide if they are burned. A lot of the products made from them have short lifetimes and are used in a culture that was taught that wasting things is good, so they end up in landfills, regardless of recycling programs. When they get into natural environments, a lot of creatures mistake them for food and die because of blockage by indigestible objects. Ocean gyres fill with them, and they are a serious problem for sea fowl that try to feed them to their babies.
One important thing we can do is to stop buying new plastic junk. Another is to insist that food be packaged without plastic; in many cases you can buy bulk food at a food market and put it in your own container (remember to have the store weigh the container and mark the tare weight before you fill it). If you can only afford to buy is an item made of plastic, by all means, get it made of plastic, but buy it used. Otherwise, you are supporting the fossil fuel companies and manufacturers that inflict this junk on us.
Of course, even if we all do those things, it will not eliminate all of the plastics in our lives. I could hardly expect everyone to resort to metal combs and wooden tooth brushes. There are a lot of places that plastics are really needed for one reason or another. But there is good news, even on this front.
Some plastics exist that are not made from fossil fuels, but are entirely composed of natural organic materials found in waste from agricultural and manufacturing processes. Some are even thermoplastics that can be recycled. So yesterday’s computer cabinet, originally made of waste from a farm field, could become the dashboard of today’s car, and the handles of tomorrow’s power drills. Not only that, they can decompose like wood, to the point that small pieces could easily be handled in your compost pile. And if you put them into your fireplace, they burn like wood. And the icing on the cake is that they are priced competitively.
It happens that one of the most abundant carboniferous materials in nature is lignin, and lignin is the basis of a set of bioplastics.
No one really seems to know exactly how much lignin is produced as a by-product of paper manufacture. Estimates run from about 50 million to 100 million tons per year. Of itself, it is mostly useless stuff, but it can be combined with other waste products, such as straw cellulose, to make thermoplastics that can be injection-molded. Some of them can even be used for 3-D printing. One such product is Arboform, which can be seen at bit.ly/arboform.
Arboform is by no means the only bioplastic. There are others that are made a wide variety of other natural materials, and the plastics seem very familiar. There is a lot of research going into bioplastics, and we will doubtless see more appear.
One thing to bear in mind, however, is that before we celebrate bioplastics as cure-alls, we should understand their true individual natures. The fact that something comes from renewable materials does not mean it is necessarily good for the environment. Each has to be assessed for its environmental impact, including where it came from, what byproducts its production might entail, and where it might go. We would hate to see a baby albatross die because it ate bioplastic trash.