Vermont Public Radio (VPR) recently ran two stories that both speak to the same problem but from very different points of view. They point to both a problem and a solution.
The first one I will examine here, though it was the second to broadcast, is “Plastic Has A Big Carbon Footprint – But That Isn’t the Whole Story” (http://bit.ly/VPR_plastics). In this story, National Public Radio reporter, Christopher Joyce, described the carbon footprint of plastics and compared them with the alternatives.
Many of us are familiar with the problems plastics are causing in our environment. Bits of plastic are caught in the ocean where they stay for years, gradually gathering in gyres. These were covered in the article “Garbage Patches in our Oceans,” in the August 2015 edition of Green Energy Times (http://bit.ly/GET-ocean-garbage-patches). The VPR story, however, went into aspects of the problem we did not cover in that story.
Plastics nearly all come from oil and gas. Extraction, transportation, refining, production, processing, and more transportation all contribute to the climate effects from plastics. In the VPR broadcast, Carroll Muffett, head of the Center for International Environmental Law, said emissions from aspects of manufacture, use, and disposal of plastics is expected to be about 56 billion tons between now and 2050, fifty times the current emissions of all U.S. coal-burning power plants.
The problem with this is partly that replacing the plastic with such things as paper will only make things worse because of the emissions and losses associated with those replacement materials. They use forest products and are associated with their own emissions from transportation, manufacture, and disposal. For example, a plastic bag weighs much more than a plastic bag, so it requires much more energy to transport.
The broadcast on carbon emissions associated with plastic does not sound particularly hopeful, but it should be taken with an understanding of the possibilities for new replacements. The other VPR broadcast I mentioned went into this. That program was “Molding Mycelium – The Roots of Mushrooms – To Tackle Plastic Pollution” (http://bit.ly/VPR-mycelium). It includes an interview with Eben Bayer, founder and CEO of Ecovative Design (ED), a company that is doing extensive research on mushrooms and the products that can be made from them.
Bayer is a mechanical engineer by training, and the problems he has been working on relate mostly to such things as packaging, insulation, and padding. They range far wider than those, however, and include artificial leather and a vegan meat substitute.
Bayer started his business with the understanding that plastics are dangerous and that their use has serious consequences. He saw that he could develop materials that could replace them with little or no negative environmental effect.
The foam plastics used to protect products in shipping provide a good example of what ED’s products can do. Just as polystyrene foam can be made in a mold to form protective padding for specific products, such as televisions, for example, ED could grow materials with similar structural benefits in similarly shaped molds. The mushroom-based padding on the television is so like what might be cast from styrene that many people would not immediately see the difference.
That difference, however, is profound. Where styrene may take centuries to break down in a landfill, or, worse yet, wind up in a gyre in the middle of the ocean, the product from ED can be added to the compost and can break down in a few short weeks.
Readers of Green Energy Times who have sharp eyes and good memories might remember that ED was mentioned in our June 2018 article, “A Real Home-Grown, High-Performance Door” (http://bit.ly/GET-Home-Grown-Door). That article was about Gryphon Doors, which were made with insulation by ED’s mycelium.
And in fact, G.E.T. has covered other products that were compostable plastics or replacements for plastics as well. One of these, which appeared in the August,2015 issue was “Good Plastics? Really?” (http://bit.ly/GET-good-plastics).
The message here is simple. Plastics present enormous problems, but solutions do exist.