It was in 1907 that the first modern plastic, Bakelite was invented, marking the beginning of the global plastics industry and ever since then, we have come to a day where if we just give a passing glance and we will something or the other which would be plastic. And why would that not be the case even, given how it is the single most versatile and cost effective material in the world.
But everything this powerful, comes with its own caveats. And for plastic, which because strength and durability became our material of choice, has now become the Frankenstein Monster, hard to fight. Plastic simply doesn’t degrade or decompose and unlike the plants or other natural elements, it wouldn’t even form fuel. It would remain there always, just like the way it was when it got produced.
A Look at the Amount of Waste
Especially since the 2000s, plastic waste generation has been on an unprecedented high. Rapid industrialisation of course and the focus on attractive packaging are the added fuel to this fire. Today, we generate about 300 million tons of this waste every year which is literally equal to the weight of the entire population on the planet; the sad part, this plastic waste just keeps getting added.
The situation has been further worsened by the increase in usage of single use plastics. From water bottles, shampoo bottles, ice cream containers to any sort of packaging, these are everywhere. What’s even more alarming is that, of the 9.2 billion tons of plastics, more than 6.9 billion tons have become waste, of which 6.3 billion tons never make it to a recycling bin.
However, it is tough to make sudden changes and while all of us understand the issues that plastic brings, yet to cut it completely from our lives would be tough.
So what should be done?
Is there any material good enough to even get closer to the kind of utility that plastic offers?
Bio-plastics and Biodegradable packaging: The Alternative
The Fourth Industrial Revolution, which we are currently in stands for innovations and industrial practices aimed at a holistic development and not just making the life easy. Bio-plastics and Biodegradable packaging can be said to be one of the most significant advancements seen in this period.
Bio-plastics, are the plastics that are created from a natural resource and/or are able to breakdown naturally.
We can broadly divide the source of bio-plastics into two families.
The first one comes directly from plant biomass (starch, cellulose, etc). The starch which is extracted from potatoes, corn or wheat can be easily converted into a thermoplastic material, using conventional plastic processing methods. Similarly, cellulose, the most abundant molecule on earth, can be used to produce transparent and flexible films that are barriers to moisture and oxygen.
The second one includes polyesters obtained mainly by biological fermentation (PHA) or by biomass polymerization (PLA). PLA ‘s application can be expanding to biomedical and pharmaceutical fields and also to the production of fibers for making clothes, fishing nets, etc, due to its “bio-compatibility”.
Bio-plastics are known to not produce any net increase in carbon dioxide during their breakdown process since the plants which are the primary ingredients had already absorbed enough carbon dioxide to begin with. PLA produces almost 70 percent less greenhouse gases when it degrades in landfills.
The production of Bio-plastics gave rise to the concept of biodegradable packaging. The largest segment by application of bio plastics is actually in packaging, both in terms of value as well as volume, with a market share of close to 60.3%.
The Apprehensions & Initiatives
One might point out that the sector of biodegradable packaging is small and is at a relatively nascent stage when compared to overall packaging industry of the globe. But, one can hope that the increasing consumer awareness would intensify the growth of biodegradable packaging market. Besides this, rising emphasis on sustainable packaging by retail conglomerates is expected to bolster the growth of global biodegradable packaging market.
For instance, when the largest retailer in the world, Walmart, said that it would sell produce in PLA containers, this itself boosted sale of biodegradable packaging. Just, imagine the impact of Walmart’s plans to use 114 million PLA containers over the course of a year over other businesses then. Biodegradable packaging market was valued at US$ 3,403.4 Mn by the end of 2016 and is expected to attain the revenue of US$ 7,058.8 Mn by 2023.
In addition to these, we always have an option to follow- Remove and Reduce.
Many have joined hands in exploring ways so that they can cut back on energy consumption, use alternative energy, reduce waste and use recycling procedures in their operations.
And while it’s still a brave new world for business, these bio-plastics and biodegradable packaging measures can easily be implemented with immediate effect, and that too cost effectively.
Finally, We should try to avoid packaging wherever we can. The Governments have become sincere in their efforts and so have the common people and from the way things are progressing, it is only a matter of time that biodegradable plastics will become a common place item.