Plastic is everywhere—in our wallets, our homes and our schools. Unfortunately it also often ends up on the sides of our roads and in our oceans.
So how do we balance the value that plastic provides against the impacts on our planet?
On one hand, plastic prolongs the life of resources we cherish on a finite planet by providing packaging that decreases food spoilage and waste. On the other hand, this ubiquitous material made from fossil-based fuels has tremendous impacts on the environment, both through the extraction of these resources and the waste that is created when these materials are not recycled.
The answer lies not in a world without plastic, but rather a world in which plastic is responsibly made from infinitely renewable resources.
Ushering in a more sustainable future
WWF’s Erin Simon has been working for the past two years to make this future possible.
As the manager of WWF’s packaging and material science program, Erin leads our efforts to protect natural resources by working with business and industry to help them become part of the solution. This includes making informed, sustainable material choices for their products and packaging. Companies must better understand both the impacts and the advantages of different raw materials offer and make decisions that add value to their products while reducing the impact on the environment.
“Plastic are mostly derived from finite resources like petroleum. The environmental impact of the extraction of these fossil-based resources, coupled with their diminishing availability, requires us to explore new solutions,” said Erin. “With the emergence of plant-based plastics, we are already heading down that path, but we have to consider what new impacts these solutions will have on our planet and how to manage those appropriately.”
The materials (known as feedstocks) used to create plant-based plastics generally come from agricultural products. The cultivation of these materials can cause large scale issues like habitat fragmentation and biodiversity loss. It also involves the typical environmental impacts associated with agriculture’s fertilizer, pesticide and water use.
Plant-based plastics, if responsibly produced from renewable resources in an efficient manner can provide more viable solutions over fossil-based resources if these risks are addressed.
Championing sustainable solutions
WWF, together with eight of the world’s leading consumer brands, is working to do just that by convening the Bioplastic Feedstock Alliance. The alliance is committed to supporting the responsible development of plastics made from plant-based material, helping build a more sustainable future for the bioplastics industry.
WWF will work with these companies to guide the responsible selection and harvesting of feedstocks—such as sugar cane, corn, bulrush, and switchgrass—used to make plastics from agricultural materials. As the development of these renewable materials has grown, so has the opportunity to address their potential impacts on land use, food security, and biodiversity.
Driving positive change at scale
To guide the development of sustainable bioplastics, the alliance will bring together experts from industry, academia and civil society to develop and support informed science, collaboration, education, and innovation.
By involving companies from across the food, beverage, automotive and apparel industries, this collaborative effort seeks to drive positive change and provide a competitive alternative to fossil-fuel based plastics.
“Fossil fuel based plastics have been produced for almost five decades. They’ve had all that time to become really efficient and really cost-effective,” said Simon. “Changing the raw building blocks of chemistry to make a new plastic from renewable materials requires new technology and infrastructure, and to be able to compete with the existing industry, you have a lot of time to make up.”
With the support and purchasing power of multiple brands and consumer products, the time, resources and costs of pursuing sustainable solutions for plant-based plastics can be great reduced.
“We are trying to do what was done in fifty years for fossil-fuel based technology in about five to ten years. I am confident that pursuing a pre-competitive approach, which is grounded in science and focused on stewardship, will accelerate a future that is good for business and for the planet.”