As the fight against plastic pollution intensifies around the world, a whole cottage industry of companies selling plastic alternatives and repurposing plastic waste has emerged.
These efforts are often legitimately sustainable and suggest a viable path toward a zero waste future, such as tote bags that replace single-use plastic bags. Sometimes, however, what seems groundbreakingly sustainable at first glance is not so green upon closer inspection.
Over the years, Global Citizen has often written about innovative uses of plastic waste or supposedly green alternatives that experts say could actually be dead-ends — products or services that don’t lead to long-term sustainability and might even stand in the way of true progress.
In this article, we’re taking a look back at some of the plastic alternatives that are either harmful to the environment, or are not yet mature enough in their product life cycle to be celebrated. And we’ll also offer some legitimately sustainable alternatives.
“I think it’s incumbent on all of us to try to reduce our use of plastic whenever possible,” Bill Levey, CEO of Naeco, a company that makes sustainable plastic alternatives, told Global Citizen. “The best way to do that is, whenever possible, use a reusable product and then to ultimately make better buying decisions.
“It’s dangerous for us to continue to have a single-use mentality,” he added.
Here are five plastic alternatives or uses of plastic waste that aren’t as good for the environment as you might think.
Nearly half a trillion plastic water bottles are purchased and consumed each year, and fewer than 7% are recycled into new water bottles.
In recent years, scientists have been racing to find an alternative to single-use plastic water bottles and have come up with some prototypes, often derived from plants, that supposedly degrade in natural environments and pose no risk to animals.
But there are three problems with these efforts, according to Levey, who has extensively studied and experimented with plastic bottle substitutes.
First, these bottles can often only degrade in highly controlled environments.
“You essentially need an environment that has high enough heat and moisture levels that allow microbes to break down the polymer, but outside of a carefully controlled environment, that degradation may not and most likely will not occur,” he said.
These bottles also often contain plastic linings or chemicals that are unable to naturally degrade.
“The question is, are they telling the full story?” Levey said. “If they’re saying it’s made from plants, that’s great, but what actually has to happen after it’s used for it to break down? What conditions are actually required?”
Further, these bottles do nothing to break the reigning paradigm of single-use plastics.
“The most sustainable option is almost never going to be a single-use product,” Levey said. “It's dangerous if people equate ‘biodegradable’ — without knowing the time and conditions involved — with the idea that it's therefore OK to avoid changing habits.
“The most sustainable option is a reusable option and ideally we move towards that as much as possible,” he added.
Alternative: Here are a few reusable water bottles you can buy that will both reduce your single-use plastic consumption and will last a long a time:
Similar to water bottles derived from plant-based plastics, some companies have begun selling biodegradable plastic bags.
Globally, more than 1 trillion single-use plastic bags are used each year, and less than 5% get recycled. The vast majority of these bags end up in landfills or contaminate environments, causing harm to animals. Paper bag production, meanwhile, often leads to deforestation and is not necessarily a sustainable alternative.
Some companies claim that their biodegradable, single-use plastic bags are safe for animals to eat, but Richa Malik, the founder of the India-based start-up The Happy Turtle, which sells and advocates for alternatives to plastic, said these claims are inaccurate.
Read More: The Long, Strange Journey of a Plastic Bag
“Studies have basically found out that the degradation of bioplastics in the guts of sea turtles is no different than plastic,” she said.
Although these bags can sometimes be composted in the right conditions, Malik said that too often they end up in landfills or ecosystems where they release greenhouse gas emissions into the environment.
And, at the end of the day, these bags aren’t renewable, she said.
“It’s a single-use product,” she said. “The moment you scale it up, you have to scale up resources and raw materials, from corn starch, algae, bamboo — it’s all coming from agricultural lands.”
Alternative: Rather than single-use bags, you can use tote bags that can be continually reused. Your favorite brands probably sell a fashionable tote bag that you can rep, or go to any grocery store and look through their functional totes.
Single-use plastic straws have become public enemy No. 1 in the global fight against plastic. Americans alone use up to 170 million per day single-use plastic straws a day, and because plastic straws are too flimsy to recycle, they end up in landfills or local environments.
For many environmental advocates, plastic straws are simply a gateway to get people more interested in learning more about sustainable alternatives, because other forms of plastic, such as fishing nets, cause more harm to marine life.
But in the rush to replace single-use straws, many supposedly sustainable alternatives have popped up.
Bamboo straws, in particular, have become popular, but both Malik of Happy Turtle and of Levey of Naeco said they’re often not actually sustainable.
Malik pointed to the carbon footprint of these products.
“People use a lot of bamboo items in the US, but bamboo doesn’t grow in the US,” she said. “It grows in China, and the carbon footprint is phenomenal.”
She stressed that companies and people should be investing in local alternatives, rather than looking for one-size-fits-all replacements.
Levey said straws and other items made of bamboo often feature a lot of other materials.
“There’s some bamboo materials that are marketed as naturally organic bamboo, but it’s not the whole story,” he said. “We had bamboo samples we were excited about, only to learn that this bamboo stuff looks and feels like plastic, and it’s actually 15% bamboo powder, maybe 20% cornstarch and then 60% resin, which is actually a chemically formed plastic that also contains formaldehyde.”
Alternative: Ideally, you can go throughout life without using straws. But when you do reach for a straw, choose the most environmentally friendly option. Although bamboo, reusable straws are more sustainable than single-use plastics, and many brands sell 100% bamboo products, reusable steel straws generally make more sense for the environment because they last longer and can be sourced locally. Paper straws are also a better alternative for coffee shops and restaurants.
This recommendation comes with a major caveat, because people with disabilities rely on straws and should be able to access the straw of their choice.
Each year, more than 8 million tons of plastic enter the world’s oceans. Marine animals, including whales and turtles, often consume this plastic by accident and become sick or die as a result.
In recent years, many multinational clothing brands have responded to the growing epidemic of plastic waste by incorporating recovered plastic into their clothing lines.
Overall, these efforts help to clean up the oceans, which is undoubtedly a good thing, but they end up releasing microplastics and other toxins into the environment over the long-term, and also don’t do anything to break the reign of fast fashion, according to experts.
Since the fashion industry shifted toward a fast fashion model, it became immensely harmful to the global environment by consuming large amounts of resources, including water, and releasing harmful chemicals into the environment.
Alternative: Sustainable clothing advocates say that the best way to make the fashion industry more sustainable is for consumers and companies to invest in longer-lasting items made from sustainable materials that would lead to less clothing is bought overall.
All around the world, entrepreneurs have started paving roads with plastic waste.
It sounds like a compelling idea — taking the plastic waste that’s contaminating the environment and turning it into an asphalt that, in turn, conserves natural resources.
But environmental activists have raised red flags, saying that as these roads wear down, they release fine plastic dust into the atmosphere that can cause harm to animals and even humans. Microplastics already pervade the air, bodies of water, and food sources. In fact, the average human ingests at least 70,000 microplastics annually.
Road construction is inherently harmful to the environment — it involves materials such as concrete and petroleum that are often extracted in unsustainable ways, and they continually erode and release harmful materials into the atmosphere.
Alternative: Construction advocates suggest recycling degraded roads to conserve natural resources, and some environmentalists encourage the adoption of solar panels on roads to at least cultivate clean energy.
Tackling massive problems like climate change and plastic pollution ultimately depends on government and corporate action, but individuals also have a role to play.
The purchasing decisions people make every day influence the economy, determining which businesses thrive and which falter. If enough people make similar decisions based on shared values, then sector-wide transformations can happen.
Levey said that everyday people can encourage their favorite companies to invest in sustainable alternatives to plastic. He cited Trader Joe’s, which recently announced a major plastic reduction initiative, as an example.
After an anti-plastic petition gathered 1 million signatures, the retail giant listened to customers and announced a new commitment to sustainability.
Small steps like these can make big changes in the long-term, he said.
“It can be daunting and folks that are coming into this issue learning about going plastic-free and zero waste and they start to try to make changes, a lot of people want to give up,” he said.
“We really just want to try to encourage progress,” he added. “Not perfection.”