Finding an alternative to plastic
The plastic packaging problem
Simply put, the world is becoming overwhelmed by plastic. The material once hailed as a miracle has quickly become a nightmare and single-use plastics are a huge part of the problem. Out of the 300 million tonnes of plastic produced every year, more than half of it is destined to be single-use — and the statistics make alarming reading:
- Humans buy around 1 million plastic bottles per minute in total
- It takes 450 years for a plastic bottle to break down
- 4 trillion plastic bags are used worldwide every year
- 500 billion disposable cups are used annually
- Half a million plastic straws are used every day
- 32% of the plastic packaging produced annually ends up in our oceans
- By 2050, there could be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans
- Nearly all the plastic ever produced still exists in some form
The ongoing pandemic has affected society’s relationship with plastic too. According to a survey by community interest company Everyday Plastic, we’re throwing away more plastic during the pandemic than we did before. During the lockdown in 2020, their research shows an increase of between 25-30% in the amount of plastic being thrown away by households every week. It seems our reliance on plastic packaging shows no sign of slowing down.
An innovative new solution
If the world wants to tackle its addiction to plastics, there has to be a change of thinking. Finding sustainable alternatives to single-use plastic packaging is vital and one such answer has an interesting origin: seaweed. Through studying the use of membranes in nature that contain liquids, a new material made of seaweed has been developed that can encapsulate water or liquid of any kind. This clever new membrane is sustainable, edible and fully biodegradable in just 4-6 weeks, meaning no micro-plastics or waste that lasts for centuries.
Seaweed has the potential to be a revolutionary new material for packaging. Cheap, easy and abundant on every coastline, it grows up to 1m per day and doesn’t compete with other food crops. It doesn’t need fresh water or fertilizer and actively contributes to de-acidifying our oceans, so has clear advantages over plastic. Of course, using seaweed isn’t just limited to food packaging either, as several startups are pioneering the use of it in a wide range of applications including biofuel, cosmetics, food and pharmaceuticals.
The good news is that this innovative new technology is starting to be used in the real world. One example of this is a London start-up called Notpla that uses this new membrane to produce edible, biodegradable packaging that can carry liquids and sauces.
The early success of these sustainable, biodegradable packaging solutions is encouraging and the potential for the technology is vast. There are alternatives to clingfilm in development, as well as plastic greaseproof coatings for takeaway boxes.
Perhaps the world is beginning to lose its addiction to plastic packaging at last?