When it comes to alternatives to plastic, there is often an emphasis on carbon emissions, but less so on other important factors like end-of-life impacts, the extraction of raw materials, water and land use, and the release of hazardous chemicals. Simply replacing disposable plastic with another material will not reduce the burden on the environment.
By far the least problematic solution is reusable and refillable packaging and buying unpackaged. Often these solutions are available from local markets, farm shops, independent zero waste shops and some supermarkets. It requires nothing more than a shift in our habits and behaviour. For a more detailed explanation of the pros and cons of different materials see the excellent Solving Packaging website.
Plant-based plastics, known as bioplastics, have been hailed as a green alternative to fossil fuel-based plastic, especially when it comes to food packaging. But bioplastics have their own environmental footprint, requiring the growing of crops and therefore land and water use. Bioplastics have been shown to be just as harmful, and in some cases more harmful, than conventional plastic. Plastic is plastic, whatever it is made of. It is safer to assume that bioplastics cause similar problems as plastics made from fossil fuels, especially if they make it into in the oceans.
Biodegradable plastics is a term that just means that the plastic can be broken down by naturally occurring organisms such as bacteria, fungi, and algae. What is left afterwards may still be toxic to the environment.
Compostable plastics are biodegradable under specific conditions. Only ‘home compostable’ plastics will break down on your home compost heap (very slowly). Otherwise, compostable plastics need the conditions of industrial anaerobic composting facilities to break down, and they are not currently collected by any councils across the UK. A compostable packaging alternative like a Vegware pint cup, for example, is only better than the plastic alternative if there are arrangements in place for the discarded packaging to be collected and properly disposed of.
Recyclable bioplastics: some bioplastics like bio-PET are recyclable, but most are not, and since public collection facilities do not generally exist for bioplastics, they are very rarely recycled.
Paper and cardboard
Paper and cardboard, whilst recyclable, require more energy to produce than plastic and are heavier to transport. A thin plastic bag has a smaller carbon footprint than a paper bag such as we might use for buying fruit and veg. According to the Environment Agency, we would need to use a paper bag 4 times before its carbon foot print equates to one made of plastic.
Glass, tin and foil
These may seem like better alternatives, and they can be. But we have to be mindful of resource extraction for tin and foil, and the high carbon emissions from transporting glass. According to a comprehensive UN study, half the world’s emissions are caused by the extraction of raw materials. Resource extraction causes 80% of biodiversity loss. Whilst these types of packaging materials can be recycled in principle, the reality is that much of it is not. In addition, nearly all food tins and drinks cans are lined with plastic.
When it comes to replacing polyester and nylon clothing which shed millions of tiny plastic fibres with every single wash, the traditional alternatives are cotton, wool, linen and hemp. But the production of cotton has been causing serious threats to the environment and also comes at a human cost. There is a host of fairly new materials such as bamboo which also poses a dilemma due to the chemicals used in the production of the fabric and other concerns. Linen and hemp are considered more sustainable alternatives.
Beware of eco cups and containers made of bamboo. In addition to bamboo fibres, these products are made with melamine and formaldehyde resin and degrade in the microwave, dishwasher or when filled with hot liquids.
Refill, reuse and buy unpackaged
By far the least damaging type of packaging is one that can be used again and again, or none at all. Consider these alternatives:
- reusable fabric bags for fruit & veg etc.
- reusable containers and boxes for meat, fish, cheese etc.
- refillable bottles and jars for oil & vinegar, cleaning liquids etc.
- beeswax wraps instead of foil and clingfilm