The Ultimate Guide to Plastic Alternatives

As you might have read in one of my previous posts, plastic is causing a lot of harm. Not only for the ocean, but also for humans, animals, and might even destroy entire livelihoods of people. When confronted with those facts, people often start looking for plastic alternatives. They opt for a paper bag the next time they go shopping. They might grab the milk that comes in glass rather than the plastic bottle. And don’t forget to get one of those cool bamboo containers as a plastic alternative for your next picnic!

Two days later, your colleague tells you that bamboo is apparently not as good as it sounds. Something with a high carbon footprint. Now you’re confused. Wasn’t it just marketed as one of the best alternatives for plastic? Should you go back to buying a plastic container then? Or instead get one made from metal? If you are anything like me, the constant facts and half-truths people spread about different materials just make your head spin. You end up not really believing what they are saying but still feel guilty every time you use your brand-new bamboo lunch box. Are you helping the environment now or not? What is the most sustainable packaging after all?

Turns out, the answer to that question is actually not that easy. Every material comes with certain advantages and disadvantages for the environment. If you have read my earlier post, you know that even plastic has a lot of positive sides to it. The answer ultimately lies in your own personal priorities. Or as another article puts it, “as with many environmental quandaries, the answer depends on whether you care more about climate change or solid waste, chemicals in the ground water or human toxicity, acid rain or smog.”

Finding the best alternative

To help you out, I have collected both pros and cons for four of the most well-known alternatives to plastic. All you need to do now is keep reading and figure out what your own priorities are to choose your own best alternative. You wanna make sure less turtles die because of pollution? Great! Your focus is more on reducing the CO2 in our atmosphere? Good on you! Just choose the alternative that will help you accomplish your own goals. As so often in life, unfortunately there is not a one size fit all..

Glass

Studies show that 75% of consumers see glass as the most eco-friendly material for packaging. It has actually increased its fan base over the last ten years by 50% (ref). Can the packaging material live up to its image?

Pros

  • If you didn’t know yet, glass is made from sand, which is a renewable resource.
  • Glass possesses great characteristics: since it’s completely natural, it does not contain any toxic materials that may harm our food or our body. It’s also great at preserving the taste and vitamins from food that is stored in it.
  • Lastly, it is easily recyclable. And best of all, you can keep recycling it over and over without losing any of the purity or quality. Doing so, actually saves energy as recycled glass needs less heat to melt than its raw materials. Glass bottles on average have a recycling rate of 50 to 80%.
  • Glass can also easily be recycled by yourself. Since it does not take on the smell or taste of previous products that were stored in it, you can easily give it a second life as water bottle or storage jar.

Cons

  • To produce glass, a significant amount of heat is needed. This means that the production is actually quite energy-consuming.
  • Apart from all those great characteristics above, glass by its nature is a heavy and fragile This doesn’t only mean it can break when you are using it yourself, it also makes its transportation difficult. Compared to some of its lightweight alternatives, transporting glass is consuming significantly more energy. The weight and fragility make it a very inefficient material to ship.
  • While recycling is easy, the different colors of glass do pose a challenge. In order to produce clear white glass for instance, the colors actually have to be separated before the recycling process. Unfortunately, this means that a lot of recycled glass can’t be used to produce new clear glass. Instead, it often ends up in asphalt production.

Paper & Cardboard

Paper bags were the alternative for plastic bags in supermarkets for a while. Until suddenly they weren’t. People learned about the destruction of rainforests and decided they wanted to save them. Is paper really responsible for all that deforestation?

Pros

  • Turns out, paper products do not actually play such a big role in destroying our rainforests. Quite the opposite actually. Typically, rainforest trees are hardwood and grow slowly. Paper and cardboards are predominately made from softwood, though, which grow much quicker. Statistics actually show that forests in Europe have grown by a third over the last 100 years.
  • While the raw material for paper and cardboards is grown, they actually observe CO2 and generate oxygen for us.
  • Trees are a renewable resource and despite the general perception of decreasing forests, more trees are currently being planted than cut down.
  • In some countries, up to 80% of paper is being recycled. The production of recycled paper requires less water and energy.

Cons

  • Unfortunately, the production of paper causes air pollution. To be exact, it’s about 70% more pollution than producing plastic bags. It has also been shown that paper manufacturing results in a higher emission of greenhouse gases as well as water pollutants.
  • It also consumes large amounts of energy to produce a single paper bag. Comparing it to plastic bags, that’s four times as much.
  • Water consumption is up as well, with paper consuming up to three times more water than their plastic bag equivalent.
  • Finally, although recycling paper uses less energy and water, many paper products cannot actually be recycled. Though few people are aware, oil or food stains render the paper unrecyclable.

Aluminum

Aluminum is just one of the metals that can be used as a plastic alternative. Let’s take a closer look if it can compete against its glass or paper opponent.

Pros

  • In contrast to glass, aluminum is a very lightweight and easy to handle material. The same truck can transport a higher number of aluminum cans, for example, while using less fuel.
  • Aluminum is also 100% recyclable, with no limit on how many times it can be recycled. The fact that municipal recycling programs are common around the world mean that a lot of it truly gets reused.
  • Using recycled metal also means we’re saving on energy. Recycled material uses as little as 4-8% of the energy needed for producing new aluminum. The material is also not very picky when it comes to sorting, unlike its glass or plastic counterparts.

 Cons

  • Though recycled aluminum is great, the production of aluminum itself is actually pretty energy-intensive and environmentally destructive. Bauxite, the raw material of aluminum, is sourced from mines around the world. The U.S., for instance, gets it all the way from Guinea or Australia. Mining activities increase habitat loss and water contamination in those areas. Other environmental impacts include increased erosion.

 Bamboo

With all that hype around bamboo, lots of bamboo products have been coming to eco-friendly stores around us. From bamboo food containers, toothbrushes or makeup removal pads, they have entered various parts of our homes. Are they really that eco-friendly? Turns out, they are! Well almost…

Pros

  • Bamboo is a very strong yet incredibly lightweight These qualities allow it to be bent into various shapes without breaking as easily as wood.
  • It’s also antifungal, antibacterial, and naturally pest resistant which means no toxic or chemical materials need to be used to grow it.
  • Though it looks like a tree, bamboo is actually a kind of grass. It can grow up to 60cm a day, making it the fastest growing wood-like plant in the world. This mean it is highly renewable as it can be harvested after just three to seven years.
  • Since it’s a plant, it is 100% biodegradable.

Cons

  • Though bamboo seems like a magical material, unfortunately it cannot be grown everywhere. Most bamboo is produced in China, with other countries in Southeast Asia, Central and South America as well as Africa also growing bamboo. The long transportation ways unfortunately add up to a higher carbon footprint than local materials.
  • While great for strong and durable products, converting bamboo into fabric brings a lot of chemicals into play. Harsh chemicals have to be used to convert this raw material into a soft, cotton-like state.

As it turns out, four of the most well-known plastic alternatives also have significant negative impacts on our planet. It ultimately depends on the sort of product you are looking for to determine the most sustainable material or packaging. Another factor to consider is the location you are buying the product from. A bamboo toothbrush bought in Southeast Asia may have very little impact on the environment. On the other hand, a bamboo shirt bought in the US may have quite a large negative impact. I hope this post gave you a little bit of a starting point in your own journey to find the best alternative to plastic. Unfortunately, you almost never get around reading the fine print or doing some additional research if you want to find the best alternatives. Sometimes saving the planet is hard work. Luckily, hard work almost always pays off!

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