Given the current awareness of how harmful plastic is, more and more people are looking for plastic alternatives instead. Of course, the best course of action is to use long-lasting, sustainable products instead of disposable ones. But there are occasions that call for single-use products for convenience, such as large scale gatherings and food markets.
The word plastic originally meant “pliable and easily shaped” and was only recently used as a name for a category of materials called polymers. Polymer means “of many parts” as they are made with a long chain of molecules. The first synthetic plastic was created in 1869 by John Wesley Hyatt as a response to a New York Firm’s offer of USD$10,000 to anyone who could make a substitute for ivory. Modern-day plastic was first conceived by Leo Baekeland in 1907 it was coined Bakelite.
Fast forward to today and we find ourselves with the predicament of waste accumulated to tantamount degrees, resulting in the Pacific trash vortex, or otherwise known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This is where a large amount of plastic waste, measuring the size of Texas, USA, floats in the Pacific Ocean. There’s no better motivator to utilise sustainable and biodegradable alternatives to plastic, to ensure that our Earth does not turn into one colossal landfill somewhere in the next 30 years.
To prevent this from happening, it seems like more companies are finding an urgency to innovate and create plastic alternatives in the market. It is heartwarming to see more and more plastic disruptors made available commercially. Perhaps there is hope. The hope that these six plastic alternatives will disintegrate and contribute less to landfills, one option at a time.
1. Recycled Plastics
While not exactly a plastic disrupter, recycling plastic is a lot more complicated than we think. Out of the six common plastic types, only three are primarily recyclable. According to Bloomberg, the National Environment Agency published that only four per cent of Singapore’s plastic waste was recycled in 2018.
While there is more to improve in terms of increasing our plastic recycling rate, we must acknowledge that some effort is better than none. The beauty of recycled plastic is that it can be fashioned into many things such as activewear, recycled rubber planters, and shoes—essentially allowing plastic to take many different lifeforms and decelerating its journey to the landfill.
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Founded in the UK, CornWare is the sole manufacturer of Origo—a form of bioplastic made out of cornstarch. CornWare makes all forms of disposable cutlery and tableware that, with the right conditions, will be able to biodegrade entirely in 90 days.
Other than being 100% biodegradable, Cornware is toxic-free and produces a significantly less amount of carbon dioxide during manufacturing as compared to petroleum-based plastic. This bioplastic, as the name suggests, does, in fact, have some plastic properties integrated into the Origo material.
CornWare is made by extracting starch from corn kernels and chemically fused with plastic to produce a substantial yet eco-friendly plastic alternative. The use of plastic in this combination is integral as a 100% cornstarch plate is simply not functional as cornstarch on its own will not be able to hold shape and liquids well.
The reason why the plastics in this mixture breaks down with ease is that it’s not a standalone material but rather, a chemical compound. During decomposition, microorganisms break down CornWare as if it was made from natural plant material, allowing this bioplastic to biodegrade naturally.
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The most common form of disposables after plastic would be wood. Birchwood and bamboo are the two fastest-growing tree species, making them good candidates as they are sustainable by nature. We’ve seen it around a lot with wood-based cutlery more commonly found in cafes and your classic wooden chopsticks at your typical hawker stall. What you might not know is that those wood-based cutleries are made from birchwood.
Most birchwood cutleries and tableware are entirely organic and are not coated with any additional form of chemical, bleach or dye. This renders the wood material fuss-free and it can easily decompose in a compost bin, unlike CornWare that requires specific conditions to break down.
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I’m sure when you think of paper-based cutlery, the image of a well-soaked, soggy paper straw would come to mind. Paper products are your plates, straws and cone-shaped cups from water dispensers.
The argument between paper and plastic is a longstanding one—we can never seem to tick all the boxes with either material. But between the two, at least paper appears to be the lesser of two evils, where landfill space is concerned.
As much as plastic is justified as being more recyclable, it takes a longer time to decompose, which results in occupying landfill space for a more extended time. Paper, on the other hand, cannot be recycled but breaks down faster than plastic, thus taking up less landfill space.
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5. Bagasse (sugarcane)
Bagasse is the residual fibres from a sugar cane after its juices have been squeezed out. What makes Bagasse eco-friendly is the fact that it is a by-product of sugarcane—it does not require additional cultivation and ensures that the remainder of the sugar cane plant does not go to waste either.
While eco-friendly, the downfall of the sugarcane plant is that it is one of the world’s thirstiest crops, requiring 1500-3000 litres of water to produce one kilogram of sugarcane. Are you rethinking that cup of sugarcane juice now?
Nonetheless, giving a renewed function to its fibrous remains still seems like a better alternative compared to doing nothing at all with them. Bagasse has excellent thermal property, is water repellent, greaseproof, and is also completely biodegradable. The standout difference between this alternative and the rest is the fact that even as a disposable product, it can be microwaved and requires no plastic or wax lining to prevent the seepage of liquids.
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6. Pasta Straws
The newest of the lot—pasta straws first came into popularity in late 2019 when bars in Italy served cocktails with this seemingly ingenious alternative.
Given that it is pasta, one can turn multiple straws into a hearty bolognese after collecting several straws if they please. Which leads us to the one downside of these straws: that they cannot be used to consume hot liquids as the pasta will cook due to the high temperatures of the drink. But who uses a straw while having a piping hot cuppa anyway?
Technically, these straws are edible as they are only made with two ingredients—flour and water, which makes these straws 100% compostable. Given the limited use of ingredients in its making, these straws generate a significantly smaller processing output which results in less of an environmental impact.
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