It would take a major reshaping of global agriculture to generate enough material to replace petroleum-based plastics with vegetable plastics. Recycling must be the ultimate goal. To solve our climate crisis, there is no doubt that we need to change the way we create and dispose of everyday things. Non-renewable fossil fuels are used to make an almost endless list of items, from plastic forks to polystyrene packaging, to synthetic fabrics, to steel and cement. Not only do these products require limited resources and significant amounts of energy to be produced, but they can be almost impossible to eliminate. Our recycling system is inadequate, these materials take thousands of years to degrade, and so our planet continues to fill with garbage.
As a solution, plant-based items and biomaterials have flooded the market. Companies are creating shoes and cell phone cases, cutlery and containers to take away, and even entire buildings from plants. On paper, that sounds like the answer. The plant matter is biodegradable or can be composed, and biomaterials such as wood, corn, hemp, and cotton can be grown over and over again, and these products often have a smaller carbon footprint than their fossil fuel counterparts. A polyester shirt, a type of plastic found today in about 60% of clothing, has a footprint of about 12 pounds of CO2, while a cotton shirt has a footprint of about 9 pounds. With over 100 billion items of clothing produced each year, this difference can become huge. But the surge in plant products may also seem another environmental trend.
Can vegetable plastic save us from climate catastrophe?
The answer is a bit more complicated than making sure everyone picks a compostable fork instead of a plastic one. The wave of plant-based products is not just a greenwash – it’s a necessary transition, says Mathis Wackernagel, founder, and president of the Global Footprint Network, a sustainability research group that annually calculates the Earth Overshoot Day, the date by which humanity has exhausted the annual allocation of Earth’s resources. “There is no future but a regenerative future, whether we like it or not”, he says. By regenerative, it means that we must live by what we can renew, and we cannot renew fossil fuels. “In the end, everything must be based on plants”.
But moving to a world of plant products will not be easy. We can make a quick transition, which according to Wachernagel will come with “short-term pain”, but which will leave us with a larger regenerative budget (as Earth will be able to produce more biological materials) for the future. Or we can slowly switch to plant products, take our time to experiment with them, and refine them, but the more time we waste, the more dramatic climate change will be and the less the Earth will be able to produce for us in the future.
These short-term pains can be as harmless as the inconvenience of a compostable spoon losing its integrity in yogurt, but it’s a compromise we have to live with. “Maybe we should rejoice if the spoon gets a little wobbly”, says Wachernagel. “We must take joy in the fact that I can put it in my compost bin”.
Wanting a spoon made of plant material to be as durable as plastic is possible, but there is another compromise: it is more difficult to make compost. A more stable spoon is made of bioplastics, and most composting plants can’t handle bioplastics, says Ray Hatch, CEO of recycling company Quest. They require high temperatures and expensive equipment, and in the United States, there are only about 100 such plants. “The perception of bio-based form is that they are all the same, and they are not really”, he says. Bioplastics must be separated and treated separately, and if they go to landfill they do not make compost”. They’re just as polluting, and they’ll be there like any other kind of plastic”.
The simple ban on single-use plastics in favor of compostable or biodegradable packaging is not a complete solution to our waste problem without the waste infrastructure to accommodate these new materials. Changing what we do doesn’t solve even our problem of excess, because we are producing so many things. In 2018, the world produced 359 million tons of plastic. Are we ready to handle the same volume of plant material? “With carbon depletion, we will be much more in demand of the rest of the planet”, says Wackernagel. “There is not an abundance of plant material that we can simply exploit”.
Experts are already concerned about how we can adequately feed our growing population, especially if we can grow enough fruit and vegetables for everyone. Asked if we currently have enough space to grow all the plants we need to do everything with biomaterials, as well as to feed our world, Carson Meredith, director of the Georgia Tech Renewable Bioproducts Institute, says it’s not safe, but that doing so would entail other costs. More land should be devoted to agriculture, and this will probably require taking away the land from livestock. Pastureland and crops for animal feed account for 77% of the global agricultural area, yet livestock produces 18% of the world’s calories and 37% of its total protein.
If we grow more crops, we also need to be aware of how we’re growing them. Does that farm work from renewable energy? What about all the emissions and other environmental effects of fertilizers, which are necessary to grow plants quickly but which, if made of nitrogen, can deplete the soil of nutrients and contaminate drinking water, and damage aquatic life. This is another cost of this change, Meredith says: change our infrastructure for industrial agriculture to make many plants grow at their best (although all the use of energy and fertilizers depends on the type of plant you are growing).
Plant-based items are a welcome development as a transition from plastic, adds Meredith, but we must be careful how we shape our future full of vegetation. The transition to a world with more plant-based products must take place together with other initiatives, from innovations in circular production to how best to use bio-waste to the best use of bio-waste, to ensure that composting plants are available to biodegrade these objects.
Instead of a shift from plastic to plant materials, we need to change the whole process of producing and disposing of all the products that we use throughout our lives. Our current waste stream is linear, which means we take resources, we convert them into a product, and then that product ends up in a landfill, and new products are constantly on the same path. “We have to make it circulate“, Meredith says. If the products have been produced in a closed cycle, where at the end of their life they have been reused, repaired, or reused rather than sent to a landfill, those materials go beyond, potentially leading to less energy and CO2 than the continuous extraction and refining of new raw materials, even if these raw materials are plants.
For consumers who want to buy products based on plants that have the greatest benefits for the planet, Meredith warns to pay attention to smart labels: how much of that product is made of plants and how were these plants obtained? “If it’s forest-based material, you have to be sure it’s a sustainably managed forest“, he says. Some research may take some work, but still, if you can choose between paper or plastic, he says, choose paper.