I’ve known plastic was harmful to the environment for my entire life. Yet, I’ve never lived in a world without it. Whether it’s the wrapper for a candy bar, a shampoo bottle, the packaging of any mass-produced object, plastic is an integral part of life in modern-day society.
We’ve been mass producing plastic since the 1950’s, amounting to a staggering 6.3 billion tons produced since then. Of that, only 600 million tons have been recycled, and although the number sounds grand, it’s nothing in comparison to the 4.9 billion tons of plastic sent to landfills or left in nature. No matter how many times we’re told to reduce, reuse, recycle, plastic continues to be produced and maintains a vital role in how we consume. Although we could change the way we consume and reorder our values, this is easier said than done. One approach that has gained popularity over the years is biodegradable plastic. The idea of still using plastic in a sustainable way seems like a win-win situation, but there have been bumps in the road of its journey.
In the past, biodegradable plastics have been somewhat ignored when it comes to disposing them. There is a lot that is unknown to the public about bioplastics. They are made from plant products (often times starch), and either degrade over time or can be turned into compost. Most bioplastics need to go through industrial processes to degrade, and can’t be mixed in with non-degradable plastics. But, in the past, this was unknown to consumers. Because of the lack of correct usage of bioplastics and their lengthy degrading time, many claims that they simply cannot replace single use plastics.
However, as of April of 2021, a new advancement has been made in the realm of bioplastics. Ting Xu, a professor at UC Berkeley, and his team of scientists created a new process to decompose plastics. It involves embedding a polyester-eating enzyme in the plastic as it’s being made. The enzyme activates when the plastic is exposed to heat and light, making the plastic be all eaten up in the span of a week. This new process nor only decomposes faster than traditional bio-plastics, and can also be used for thicker stronger plastics. It truly might be what changes how we consume.
Yet, switching to advanced bioplastics is not going to conquer climate change on its own. We need to be mindful of the byproducts of our consumption: both obvious and behind the scenes. We need to be more conscious of how our lives affect other organisms and environments. We need to come together as communities and protect our homes. Degradable bioplastics is a step towards integrating environmentalism into mainstream life. It allows us to transition from a society that viewed the Earth as resources to conquer into one that respects the world around them, while still enjoying the beautiful aspects of human civilization.
Written by Alexia Tiches