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Plastic is firmly established in our daily lives, but it’s only existed for about a century or so. As we consider the long-term harms of rapidly accruing pollution, it begs the question…would it be so bad to finally break up with plastics? And is it even possible at this point? It’s not like we don’t have better options all around us. We can convert starches, fungi, seaweed, heck, even shrimp tails into materials that have the potential to offer more benefits and less baggage. Let’s review five of the most interesting advances I’ve come across — including that shrimpy stuff. But are any of these plastic alternatives actually viable? Or are we literally grasping at straws?

In a previous video, I’ve discussed how we’ve been misled into thinking that plastic recycling … well, happens at all … much less works smoothly when we do bother. But I think the scale of the problem is best summed up by an oft-cited statistic: by 2015, we had only recycled about 9% of plastics ever made.1 We already know plastic recycling is a farce. And we’re becoming increasingly aware of how our own bodies are reflecting the pervasiveness of plastic pollution. So if we want to reduce dependence on plastics, where do we start?

The majority of plastics we use are dedicated to packaging.23 Just think of all the plastic involved in a single grocery store run: clamshell cases from the bakery, film that lets you peek at your pasta, stretchy bags of rice. And of course…bottles.

We can do better than that, though, and with materials that can be composted right at home. I’ve talked about quite a few alternatives that avoid these problems before, so let’s do a little roll call and find out how they’re doing now.

PLA

If you’re a 3D printing enthusiast, you’re probably already familiar with polylactic acid, or PLA. PLA falls under the category of a bioplastic. It’s typically made from carbs like potatoes and corn, and companies have been incorporating it into their packaging arsenals as far back as the early 2000s. PLA is technically both recyclable and compostable, but it suffers from the same problems as other plastics: there isn’t much effective infrastructure for either process. Other plastics like HDPE and PET are more valuable, so recyclers tend to prioritize those above all.4

Now, for this video, I want to focus on alternatives that can easily break down in your garden, which avoids the labor involved in retrieving and preparing plastics for industrial composting. So why am I bringing up PLA? Because you can compost PLA at home… if the product in question contains an enzyme that allows for it to easily break down later.

And that’s exactly what French company Carbiolice, a subsidiary of Carbios, specializes in. It developed CARBIOS Active, an enzyme that, once incorporated during manufacturing, allows for PLA plastics to biodegrade within eight weeks — at room temperature. Typically, composting PLA requires high and constant temperatures at an industrial scale. Think heat as high as 58 C or 136 F.546

Last year, we left off with Carbiolice’s 2021 announcement that it had obtained its second “OK Compost HOME” certification for rigid PLA plastic produced with its enzyme. This followed its first certification for thin PLA films in 2020.6 Since then, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration added CARBIOS Active to its Inventory of Effective Food Contact Substances (FCS) earlier this year. What this means is that U.S.-based industries can now use PLA that incorporates Carbiolice’ enzyme for food packaging. That’s a big deal for popularizing compostable PLA.7

It’s worth keeping in mind, however, that “bio-based” plastics only represented about 1.5% of plastic production in 2021…and “bio-based” does not necessarily mean compostable.8 What about an alternative material that’s a little more established? Maybe something with…deeper roots?

Mycelium

Well, for those of you who have been watching for a while, you might remember when I talked about fungi materials way back in 2021. Yes, fungi, the organisms that are neither plant, nor animal, nor guy. More specifically, companies like Ecovative are branching out applications for mycelium, the delicate networks of roots that grow beneath fungi.9

Headquartered in New York state, Ecovative has been experimenting with multiple mushroom ventures since 2007. One of its most fascinating is its mycelium composite packaging, MycoComposite. I’ve got a sample of what it looks like right here. This mixture of mycelium and agricultural waste can supplant the polystyrene foam that’s notoriously ubiquitous inside the cardboard boxes delivered to your door. Companies have used the stuff to ship everything from cosmetics and candles to furniture.10

In September 2023, Ecovative opened up its patent for MycoComposite under The European Open Patent Program, granting all European companies access to its materials for the development of their own products.1112

That said, there is one common application that MycoComposite isn’t appropriate for: food.13 So, how else can we take a bite out of plastic packaging? Well…

Seaweed

I mentioned earlier that plant-based bioplastics, like the kind made out of food crops, can be problematic. But what about other types of plants? A couple years ago, I talked about companies that are transforming seaweed into product packaging.

You might remember that at the 2019 London Marathon, event organizers were able to significantly cut down on the number of plastic drink bottles tossed out that day by replacing a portion of them with these fantastical-looking seaweed pouches. Developed by London-based company Notpla, these “bubbles” can biodegrade within six weeks. Or, if you don’t want to wait that long, you can just eat them.14 Notpla’s seaweed-derived products expand beyond comestible containers, too, including takeout boxes, cutlery, and paper.15

And since we first met Notpla, it’s reached some pretty impressive milestones. In 2021, the European Union codified its Single-Use Plastics (or SUP) Directive into law, requiring all 27 of its member states to enforce a ban on specific plastic items.16 Each state, however, upholds its own interpretations of the ban, and of course, there are legal loopholes. For example, Notpla is unafraid to point out that some paper and cardboard food boxes that competitors advertise as “plastic-free” still contain microplastics in their linings.17 The company stands out, however, in that its boxes are all seaweed, no petrochemical, with no skimping on an anti-moisture coating.18

In fact, the Netherlands, which strictly enforces the SUP Directive, examined thousands of materials to ensure that they upheld their polymer promises. Of all of them, Notpla was the first and only material to emerge as fully compliant with the EU’s definition of “plastic-free.”19

Then there’s movement in the U.S., like with Loliware, headquartered on both the East and West coasts, and California company Sway. Loliware has been experimenting with seaweed cups, straws, and flatware. And when we last saw Sway, it was putting its winnings from the 2020 Beyond the Bag challenge toward development of its signature kelp bags.2021 Earlier this year, Sway announced the release of a new material: a Thermoplastic Seaweed resin, or TPSea™. A pun after my own heart. The name might sound a bit drunk, but it’s meant to address a sobering problem — industry reliance upon plastics like polyethylene for single-use packaging.22

According to Sway, flexible plastics for bags and wrappers make up about a solid 30% of these applications.23 That’s where TPSea™ can cut right in, no new infrastructure required. The company claims that this will enable the production of seaweed films and polybags at scale.2324 Here’s hoping that we see more seaweed and that it will hold its sway (say that five times fast). We’re going to get to another kind of undersea material in a minute, but first … now that we’ve covered seaweed, it’s time for a different kind of weed.

Hemp

And by that I mean hemp. But hold on, put down that lighter. Hemp isn’t the same popular plant that’s smoked. It’s a derivative of cannabis that doesn’t contain as much THC. Despite the fact that it isn’t psychoactive, its association with drugs has led to a turbulent legal history in the States. However, in 2018, the U.S. government passed a federal farm bill legalizing hemp production. That has since paved the way to hemp’s adoption as a building material in the form of a composite known as hempcrete.

Why hemp? First of all, building and construction is the second-largest application of plastics across the globe. They’re used everywhere from the windows to the walls. A significant chunk of the plastics used in construction, though, comes in the form of insulation.25 Between all the varieties of fiberglass and foam, it’s no wonder.26 Fun fact: despite common parlance, Styrofoam has never been used for dining or drinking. It’s probably hiding in your home, school, or workplace instead.27

Hempcrete can work as a nontoxic, compostable alternative to plastic-derived insulation. It also offers distinct advantages as a building material in general. It’s fire resistant, and because of the high pH of its lime-based binder, it also wards off pests and mold.28 And as a crop, hemp sequesters carbon. In fact, it might even be better at absorbing CO2 than trees. That’s at least according to Darshil Shah, senior researcher at the Centre for Natural Material Innovation at the University of Cambridge in England.29

One of the main limitations of hempcrete, however, is that it’s not load-bearing the way concrete is. Load-bearing components support other sections of buildings on top of their own weight.30 Basically, you can build interior walls with hempcrete outright, and you can fill in exterior walls with it as a form of insulation, but you can’t use it to construct the frame of a house. It can only support its own weight.2831

Unless, of course, you’re using another form of hemp composite…specifically the kind developed by a research team led by professor Marc Maguire at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s College of Engineering. This form of hemp block is a lighter alternative to Portland cement, but it still meets load-bearing standards for “strength, water absorption and weight.” It’s currently undergoing testing.32

That said, it was true in 2022, and it’s still true now: the States has a lot of catching up to do in the hemp scene. As Maguire says, hemp remains the most expensive component in hempcrete production because there simply isn’t enough being grown yet. That means that for now, hemp blocks are about three times as costly as traditional concrete ones.33 But you know what’s really cheap?

Shrimp

Literal garbage — in this case, the shells of shrimp. Just like their insect cousins, crustacean exoskeletons contain chitin, a form of biopolymer. And through the magic of chemistry, you can convert chitin into chitosan.34

What makes chitosan worth dumpster diving for? Well, it’s kind of like scoring an expensive piece of vintage leather while thrifting. That’s because New York-based startup TômTex has figured out a way to mold shrimp-waste-derived chitosan into a new type of leather. It looks just as glam, can fully biodegrade, and, best of all, contains no plastics.35

Because you see, textiles are another major application of plastics.36 When it comes to “vegan leather” in particular, it’s either straight-up plastic, like in the case of polyurethane (PU) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC), or it’s just…a plant-based material bound with and covered in plastic.37 Green in color, maybe, but not in practice. If avoiding materials made from any part of an animal is your priority, though, TômTex also produces leather made from chitosan harvested from mushrooms, which performs identically to its seafood sister.38

In November 2023, the company announced that it was kicking off full-scale production after the successful creation of one hundred linear feet of material.39 With any hope, TômTex’s chitinous concoction will be able to adapt to already-existing infrastructure intended for plastics like polyurethane or polyvinyl alcohol.40 So, who’s hungry for shrimp cocktail?

It’s clear that even though plastic alternatives are only now starting to gain momentum, we have the creativity and the know-how to think bigger than petrochemicals. It might mean embracing source materials that we’ve previously held our noses at, like hemp or waste, but it beats the status quo. After all, it wasn’t too long ago that consumers were only just getting used to plastic proliferation. What’s stopping us from adapting again?


  1. Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made ↩︎
  2. This common plastic packaging is a recycling nightmare ↩︎
  3. Distribution of plastic consumption volume worldwide in 2021, by application ↩︎
  4. Poly(lactic acid)—Mass production, processing, industrial applications, and end of life ↩︎
  5. CARBIOS Active: the biologic solution that makes plant-based plastic compostable even at ambient temperature! ↩︎
  6. Carbiolice announces the “OK Compost HOME” certification of PLA* (plant-based plastic) rigid packaging containing Evanesto® ↩︎
  7. CARBIOS Active, the enzymatic solution for 100% compostable PLA, added to FDA Inventory of Food Contact Substances ↩︎
  8. Plastics – the Facts 2022 ↩︎
  9. Mycelium 101 ↩︎
  10. Stylex Case Study ↩︎
  11. Open access for mycelium composites ↩︎
  12. Ecovative Opens Patent for Plastic Alternative Made from Mushrooms ↩︎
  13. Mushroom® Packaging FAQ ↩︎
  14. Ooho ↩︎
  15. Applications for a new everyday ↩︎
  16. EU bans 10 most common single-use plastic items found on beaches ↩︎
  17. It’s never just paper: why aqueous linings should raise alarm bells ↩︎
  18. Notpla Food Containers ↩︎
  19. The Netherlands takes a stand against plastic waste with Notpla ↩︎
  20. Seaweed-Based Sway Is A Way For Single-Use Plastic To Disappear ↩︎
  21. The 2020 Beyond the Bag Innovation Challenge ↩︎
  22. What Is A Poly Bag? Applications And Uses ↩︎
  23. Sway Unveils First Scalable Seaweed-Based Plastic Packaging Alternative, Following Close of $5M Seed Round ↩︎
  24. TPSea™ ↩︎
  25. A mini-review on building insulation materials from perspective of plastic pollution: Current issues and natural fibres as a possible solution ↩︎
  26. Types of Insulation ↩︎
  27. There’s Only One Styrofoam™ (and it’s not a cup) ↩︎
  28. Frequently Asked Questions ↩︎
  29. Hemp “more effective than trees” at sequestering carbon says Cambridge researcher ↩︎
  30. Load bearing definition ↩︎
  31. Lower Sioux Indian Community using hemp to build better future ↩︎
  32. Research team develops hemp-based masonry blocks ↩︎
  33. NU Engineers develop construction blocks made from hemp ↩︎
  34. Chitosan: An Overview of Its Properties and Applications ↩︎
  35. TômTex Series WS: Frequently Asked Questions ↩︎
  36. Plastics use by application ↩︎
  37. Comparison of the Technical Performance of Leather, Artificial Leather, and Trendy Alternatives ↩︎
  38. TômTex Series M: Frequently Asked Questions ↩︎
  39. Tômtex, Maker Of Revolutionary Non-Woven Textile Bio-Material, Announces Successful $4.15m Pre-Seed And Seed Round ↩︎
  40. Replace the Leather in Your Wallet With Seafood Waste ↩︎

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