How do you feel about sustainable plastic alternatives? 你如何看待可持续塑料替代品?
Photo credit: www.mychinet.com
Today if you throw out a plastic cup in Shanghai, chances are it will end up in a landfill. We certainly don’t want that ticking bomb next to our precious city, taking up plots of land and releasing toxic gases and liquids into the environment.
Let’s face it, most of us aren’t great at refusing and reducing. The ultimate solution to climate change will have to be more compatible with how most people already live their life. What about disposable cups and plates made from sustainable materials? I wonder.
I sat down with Antoine Moussali to talk about sustainable plastic alternatives and his company.
His company, Sineo Packaging, provides sustainable packaging to the food & beverage industry.
What are these sustainable alternatives to plastic in F&B?
There are mainly two types: bio-plastics and fiber-based materials. Bio-plastics are made by mixing plant starch with plastics. Polylactic acid (PLA) is the most widely used bio-plastic and is made with cornstarch and plastics. It’s compostable through a 90-day process in a commercial composting facility. Fiber-based materials compress plant fiber into utensils, cups and plates. These mainly include wheat straw, bagasse (sugarcane fiber), and kraft (wood pulp).
It seems more green to use fiber-based, no?
Yes. Fiber-based materials are great in that they come completely from plant materials that would find little use otherwise. It’s a beautiful concept to find a use for wheat straw after harvesting or sugarcane fiber after juicing. However, fiber-based materials don’t hold liquids well, aren’t heat-resistant (are not microwavable), and aren’t transparent in order to showcase the food inside (think salad bowl lids).
What about prices?
PLA ware is actually 25%-30% pricier than PE or PET, while fiber-based is only 5%-10% more.
So you’re saying that fiber-based is both green and cheap, just not as functionally-versatile?
Exactly. But let’s not get carried away. Fiber-based materials are hard to recycle because they are usually contaminated by the food they used to hold. Composting would be a perfect solution but in Shanghai and China in general we don’t have large composting facilities. Compost fiber-based materials at home if you can, even though they may take a long time.
What happens to PLA then?
PLA is not better. Since it requires specialized commercial composting facilities to be able to compost, and we don’t have those in China (very few in the world in fact), they go straight to landfill.
We cannot recycle PLA like we do PET?
First of all, less than 10% of all plastic gets recycled. So we’d be naïve to think we could recycle our way out of this mess. PLA simply doesn’t have the volume to be recycled in a way that is profitable. Additionally, it’s easy to mistake PLA for PET and put it into the recycle bin, while in reality, PLA adulterates PET and makes it costly to recycle PET. Don’t try to recycle PLA.
So you’re saying even if we switch to bio-plastic and fiber-based, they’re going to end up in the landfill, the same way plastics do?
What’s the point then?
Yea, unfortunately we don’t currently have the facility to compost or recycle them. But you’re still doing a good thing by switching from plastics, whose production generates a lot of pollution and carbon footprint.
I walked away a bit dazed and heavy in my heart. This turned out to be a lot more complex than I’d imagined. While we consume packaging thinking it´d be recycled or composted, it´s often constrained by a lack of infrastructure and policy support. As a community, we can lobby for composting facilities for Shanghai, and even a municipal composting program.
What do you think?