For the last couple of years, the news has been flooded with repulsive images of massive amounts of plastic floating in the oceans, piling up on landfill, or simply ingested by fauna; A shocking but much needed way to raise awareness to tackle this global problem.
What is the impact of plastic?
The big issue of plastic pollution started during the 50s with the industrialization and the rapid pace of consumption in the world. Plastic production increased exponentially from 2.3 million tons to 448 million tons by 2015. This means that between 1950 and 2015, over 6.3 billion tons of plastic was produced of which only 9% was recycled. In the early 70s, a large number of plastic pellets were thrown into the North Atlantic and in 2010 researchers found that 8 million metric tons of plastic entered the ocean.
Plastic is low cost, lightweight and resistant. In the oceans, plastic pollution has killed many fish and mammals through entanglement or ingestion. In 2018, more than 114 aquatic species were killed by plastic and its particles. Despite that, plastic and its components stay in the environment and in terrestrial ecosystems for many years, leaving toxins in the soil which contaminate crops and groundwater. In short: plastic pollutes what we eat, drink and breathe.
The most harmful types of plastic
Plastic that is petroleum-based dominates the market due to low cost and durability, however it is non-recyclable and non-reusable. It is derived from petrochemicals coming from fossil crude oil, coal and gas. These plastic types can remain in the environment for over a century. The most common plastics are made from polyethylene and polystyrene.
Polyethylene is a thermoplastic, commonly used in water bottles and textiles like polyester. It is the most widely produced type of plastic (10 million tons annually) which pollutes the oceans especially through clothing washing. Only 1% is recyclable.
Polystyrene is another thermoplastic petrochemical used on household appliances, electronics, food and medical packages. This type is highly harmful, especially when it comes in contact with warm food and drinks as it can be carcinogenic due to the toxins released from the heat. It is also highly hazardous for the environment since its component, petroleum, is a heavy pollutant for the ozone layer and global warming. Polystyrene is non-sustainable and takes at least 500 years to decompose.
The sustainable plastic alternatives
Biodegradable plastics or bioplastics are the new ‘light at the end of the tunnel’. They are made from natural materials such as plants or recycled plastics and they are widely compostable. Why? Because they contain additives that cause them to decay more rapidly under specific environmental conditions (with the presence of light, oxygen, moisture and heat). For the procedure to be done properly, waste management is paramount which means appropriate treatment of the natural sources and sorting of the recyclable plastics along with a chemical recycling procedure.
Bioplastics can be derived from extracting sugar from plants like corn and sugarcane, which generate a lot less dioxide carbon emissions when they are produced. How does this happen? Simply because the carbon that emanates is the one that the plants have absorbed and not the one coming underground in the form of oil. They are used in textile, film and food packaging. The Australian firm BioPak has already developed sustainable packaging from sugarcane. Another natural source currently being exploited is fish waste and algae which is another “nature-made” polymer. It was developed by a student from the University of Sussex, UK, and it was proven resistant and ideal for transparent packaging.
Another impressive initiative was created in 2013 by MycoWorks, an apparel startup that produces mushroom-based textiles in an attempt to reduce microplastics in garments. They extract collagen structures from mushrooms creating a type of leather that can replace synthetics and of course is 100% sustainable.
More and more natural sources are used in an attempt to reduce oil-based, synthetic plastics in many industries, such as fashion and the FMCGs industry. Even though these plastics can replace almost 55% of the overall production, the issue won’t be tackled at its root if we do not reconsider our relationship with consumption.
How does Kleiderly contribute to this?
At Kleiderly we tackle two environmental issues with one solution. Supporting recycling, upcycling and circular economy we convert the fashion and textile waste into a very sustainable material.
Calabrò, P. S., & Grosso, M. (2018). Bioplastics and waste management. Waste Management, 78, 800-801.