Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle aren’t enough anymore, not when a rising tidal wave of plastic waste is overwhelming the world’s waterways and coastlines. To help address our growing plastic pollution challenges, we need to promote another “R”: Replace. We must replace noxious petroleum-based plastics with innovative bio-based alternatives.
The good news is that alternatives to petroleum-based plastics already exist. But we need to start demanding them before we drown in the non-degradable single-use plastics we refuse to live without today – but won’t be able to live with tomorrow.
Unfortunately, despite education campaigns promoting Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and despite the proliferation of bans on some single use plastics, worsening plastic pollution trends continue to accelerate. For example, in the United States precious marine habitat in coastal states like Florida has been the victimized by plastics pollution beyond belief: Since 2009 over half of the marine animals in the USA that have swallowed or become entangled in plastic pollution were found in Florida, including nearly 1,000 sea turtles, dolphins and manatees. Nevertheless, industry projects plastics production to increase four-fold by 2050. This is a crisis in the making: the world simply cannot tolerate another fifty years of worsening plastics pollution.
That’s why we must add a fourth “R” to Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Now, we must also promote “Replace.” Petroleum-based plastics must be replaced with ecologically preferable bio-based alternatives. Whether or not plastic can be reduced, reused or recycled, it should no longer be made from fossil fuels.
Here are some ways each of the four Rs can be marshalled to help address Florida’s plastics pollution crisis:
Reduce: Since 2019, over 200 bills related to decreasing single-use plastic have been introduced in state legislatures. However, many of these bills aren’t getting enacted because of lobbying by the plastic industry. But consumers can act without legislation by making choices to curb plastic consumption by doing simple things like using a refillable water bottle or bringing their own bags to the grocery store.
Reuse: This “R” virtually always makes great ecological sense. Reusing non-plastic options not only combats petrol-plastic pollution but ultimately saves users money. Many awareness campaigns have tried to drive this point home. Unfortunately, a majority of consumers still demand cheap plastic products, and most businesses are happy to oblige. That’s why intelligent design of plastic products that provide ecological benefits, like the option to reuse it, is so important.
Recycle: Done right, recycling is among the most economically and ecologically impactful of the four “Rs”. Clothing, carpets and shoes are just a few products now made from recycled plastic. According to the US EPA, more than nine out of every ten tons of discarded plastic are not recovered for recycling, and often what shows up at recycling facilities is not recyclable. Our nation’s recycling infrastructure needs investment, but that could take years.
Replace: The dire need for effective solutions helps make the case for the new fourth “R”, “Replacement” of petroleum and gas with bio-based raw material alternatives. This is the only viable raw material alternative to fossil-fuel based plastics. Unfortunately, some otherwise well-intentioned legislative initiatives sometimes inadvertently stymie bio-polymer marketing, including compostable products. This makes it harder for manufacturers to shift towards bio-based options that more closely conform with ecological requirements. As lawmakers look to craft better plastics legislation, they should incentivize, not squash, the development of non-petroleum technologies that help address plastic pollution.
One example of a bio-based replacement for petrol-based plastics that is being increasingly used by manufacturers is PHA (polyhydroxyalkanoate). PHA is made from canola oil and is broken down by bacteria. While petrol-based plastics never biologically degrade, a PHA product will authentically bio-degrade within a matter of months should it become litter or wind up in an aquatic setting. That is a big advantage. Moreover, producing PHA does not create hazardous air emissions and lowers greenhouse gasses compared with petroleum-based plastics.
No one wants to contribute to the plastics pollution crisis. That is why environmentally conscious consumers and brands are demanding ecologically preferable, bio-based products that can avoid the production and waste impacts of petrol-plastics.
This is what it will take to subvert petrol-based plastics’ looming threat to a livable planet: pressure to shift to ecologically preferable bio-based products that can be mass produced. Major brands are increasingly applying pressure. Consumers can too. If we want bio-based alternatives to petroleum plastics, we can demand them today by ushering in a new rallying cry: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and Replace.
Allen Hershkowitz PhD
Allen Hershkowitz PhD was a Senior Scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council from 1988 to 2016 and is the Founding Director and Chairman of Sport and Sustainability International. He serves as the Environmental Science Advisor to numerous sports leagues and teams.
Photographer J. Henry Fair
The opinions expressed here by Allen Hershkowitz and other columnists are their own, not those of Bioplasticsnews.com.