UN report explores alternative materials to reduce plastic pollution
In an effort to equip the world with the tools and knowledge to reduce plastic litter from ending up in our ocean, rivers, and lakes, UN Environment today published a report assessing the potential of replacing conventional plastics with alternative materials in certain applications.
The ocean has increasingly become a repository for discarded plastics and microplastics, with significant demonstrable social, economic and environmental impacts.
It is neither possible nor desirable to remove all plastics from society. However, the realization from consumers and policymakers that urgent action to stop the flow of disposable plastics is needed is growing, and alternatives can have a significant role in reducing our dependence.
“Making the switch from disposable plastic to sustainable alternatives is an investment in the long-term future of our environment,” Erik Solheim, Head of UN Environment said. “The world needs to embrace solutions other than single-use, throwaway plastic."
The report outlines a range of alternative materials that can be used to replace single-use plastics where possible. There are situations – particularly in the medical field – where plastic provide an essential use.
But often, natural materials and alternative technologies can be used to break humanities addition to disposable plastic. This is particularly true for consumer products as these represent a large amount of the plastic pollution contributing to marine litter.
“The report is intended to encourage society to question our current use of plastics and consider the adoption of alternative approaches, especially for those items which can be characterised as designed for single use, such as packaging. Packaging and other single-use items form a large proportion of the plastic litter leaking to the ocean," Peter Kershaw, lead author of the report said.
The authors highlight a range of plastic materials that frequently cross our paths – from plastic food containers to synthetic clothing, to the loose fill that is often used to protect fragile products during transport – and identifies them as among the ‘main culprits’ of marine plastic litter.
Twenty-five case studies from around the world illustrate a wide range of applications to reduce our dependence on the unnecessary use of plastics of disposable plastics.
(Photo: Jute, also known in some parts of the world as burlap, industrial hemp and kenaf, is grown in the Bengal Delta Plain, which is occupied by Bangladesh and India, and is 100% bio-degradable and recyclable and thus environment-friendly.)
The report contributes to the debate on how to make our use of the planet more sustainable, citing several of the Sustainable Development Goals, including poverty reduction, increased community resilience, and waste minimization.
The advantages and disadvantages of conventional plastics made from fossil fuels are further compared with both alternative natural materials, obtained from plants and animals and newer generation bio-polymers which are plastics made from biomass sources. The report highlights some relatively conventional alternatives to plastics – such as paper, cotton, and wood – as well as less obvious solutions including algae, fungi, and pineapple leaves – among others.
(Photo: Bamboo straws are reusable and biodegradable, whereas plastic straws are not.)
By growing global awareness of the social, economic and environmental impacts of our current relationship with disposable plastics, as well as outlining a wide-ranging set of alternatives, UN Environment is setting the stage for an informed dialogue on how to break the global addiction to single-use plastics.
“Science can help business develop green and innovative solutions,” said Jian Liu, Chief Scientist at UN Environment. “There are major business and job opportunities in the development of new alternative materials that can replace single-use plastics”
The report is launched coinciding with World Environment Day 2018, celebrated annually on June 5th. Under the theme: “Beat Plastic Pollution”, the day is a call to action for communities to combat this increasing challenge to our societies.