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5 Sustainable Alternatives to Plastics

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Olives growing on a tree in Pula, Croatia. Sebastian Rothe / EyeEm / Getty Images

By Stuart Braun

1.3 billion plastic bottles are sold daily around the world. And that's just the tip of the fossil-based plastic iceberg. Plastic preserves our food. It's in the nylon and polyester we wear, and it protects medical staff from the coronavirus.


Petroleum-based plastics dominate the market because they're durable, light-weight and cheap, but most of them can't be recycled or reused.

Of the 6.3 billion tons of plastic waste produced between 1950 and 2015, only 9% was recycled. The rest of it ended up in landfills, was incinerated or, all too often, landed in the ocean.

A raft of new bioplastic innovations is starting to catch up, though. And, unlike unsustainable fossil fuels, they are derived from renewable sources.

While bioplastics have the same molecular structure as petroleum-based plastics, which take hundreds of years to decompose, research shows that biomass-based polymers are also more likely to biodegrade and break down, including in industrial compost facilities. Bioplastic proponents believe they are key to making plastic part of a circular economy.

Here's a look at five ingredients that could make bioplastics competitive with traditional plastics.

1. Olive Pits

Countries that produce a lot of olive oil have a byproduct that can be used for plastic: olive pits. A Turkish startup called Biolive began creating a range of began creating a range of bioplastic granules created from olive seeds that result in bio-based, partially biodegradable products that can decompose in a year.

The active ingredient oleuropein found in olive seeds is an antioxidant that extends the life of the bioplastic while also hastening composting of the material into fertilizer within a year.

And since Biolive's granules act like fossil fuel-based plastics, plastic producers can simply substitute the conventional granules without disrupting the production cycle for industrial products and food packaging.

Biolive claims that by utilizing olive oil waste, production costs are reduced by up to 90% in relation to some existing bioplastics. This is important says founder Duygu Yilmaz, since starch-based bioplastics made from corn are often more expensive than petroleum-based plastics are therefore not a viable alternative.

In 2019, award-winning Biolive was chosen to represent Turkey at the United Nations Development Programme.

2. Sunflower Hulls

Like olive seeds, the husks of sunflower seeds used for oil production is a waste product also being used to created bioplastics. And luckily, they're in near endless supply.

The German start-up Golden Compound has created a unique Sustainable Sunflower Plastic Compound bioplastic – referred to as S²PC. It's reinforced with sunflower hulls, which they claim are 100% recyclable.

The S²PC bioplastic is being moulded into everything from office furniture to recyclable transport and storage boxes and crates.

Golden Compound also produces a "green" bioplastic that is 100% biodegradable, GMO-free and can be fully composted at home. Products include award-winning, world-first biodegradable coffee capsules, plant pots and coffee mugs.

The German start-up attributes the success of its bioplastics to performance. "In the end, the only reason people will be willing to switch, is if it works," Marcel Dartée, General Manager at Golden Compound, told the Plastic Today trade publication.

3. Fish Waste and Algae

The growing attempt to transform organic waste into plastic now includes fish processing refuse.

A UK initiative called MarinaTex is using fish skin and scales – 500,000 tons of which are generated annually in the UK alone – bound with red algae to make a compostable plastic alternative that can replace single-use plastics such as bakery bags and sandwich packs.

MarinaTex claims the biopolymer creates stronger packaging than a conventional plastic bag — flying in the face of perceptions that bioplastics lack strength and durability.

Lucy Hughes, who created the product in her final year at the University of Sussex, says MarinaTex's flexibility, strength and pliability was inspired by actual fish skin and scales.

"It kind of struck me that nature can make so much from so little, so why do we need to have hundreds of man-made polymers when nature has so many already available," she told the World Economic Forum in November.

MarinaTex, which won the 2019 James Dyson Award worth €35,000, describes its product as home compostable and says it can break down within four to six weeks.

4. Plant Sugars

While PET is one of the most recyclable fossil-based plastics it takes hundreds of years to decompose. In response, Amsterdam-based Avantium has created a revolutionary "YXY" plants-to-plastics technology that converts plant-based sugars into a new biodegradable packaging material, polyethylene furanoate or PEF.

A trial of PEF biodegradability in the natural environment is showing promising signs.

"PEF degrades much faster than PET under industrial composting conditions," Caroline van Reedt Dortland, Director Communications at Avantium, told DW. Degrading in 250-400 days as opposed to 300-500 years is significant.

It is used as a textile, film, and has the potential to become a major player in the packaging of soft drinks, water, alcoholic beverages and fruit juices, having already collaborated with the likes of Carlsberg to create a "100% bio-based" beer bottle.

According to Hasso Pogrell of European Bioplastics, it's even possible to " recycle PEF together with PET, and it makes the PET recyclate perform even better than the original PET."

5. Mushrooms 

Gadget blog Gizmodo wrote back in 2015 about resilient and biodegradable fungal mycelia-based materials which, unlike oil-based plastic, "create no toxic byproducts."

One emerging brand utilizing fungi is Reishi, a sustainable, fine mycelium leather substitute created from a woven cellular microstructure derived from mushrooms. By emulating the collagen structure of animal leathers, Reishi fine mycelium is both sustainable and versatile.

Reishi creator MycoWorks has taken the water-resistant biomaterial to the next level, promising the performance, quality and aesthetics of leather or synthetic plastic materials, but with a negative carbon footprint.

Already utilized by a selection of European luxury and footwear brands, in late 2019 $17 million (€18 million) financing was raised to help deliver commercially viable non-plastic, non-animal Reishi materials to the market.

In terms of limiting fossil-based plastic consumption, the biomaterial aims to outperform existing "vegan leathers" that are created with unsustainable plastics.

Reposted with permission from Deutsche Welle.

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Cottongrass blows in the wind at the edge of Etivlik Lake, Alaska. Western Arctic National Parklands / Wikimedia Commons / CC by 2.0

By Tara Lohan

Warming temperatures on land and in the water are already forcing many species to seek out more hospitable environments. Atlantic mackerel are swimming farther north; mountain-dwelling pikas are moving upslope; some migratory birds are altering the timing of their flights.

Numerous studies have tracked these shifting ranges, looked at the importance of wildlife corridors to protect these migrations, and identified climate refugia where some species may find a safer climatic haven.

"There's a huge amount of scientific literature about where species will have to move as the climate warms," says U.C. Berkeley biogeographer Matthew Kling. "But there hasn't been much work in terms of actually thinking about how they're going to get there — at least not when it comes to wind-dispersed plants."

Kling and David Ackerly, professor and dean of the College of Natural Resources at U.C. Berkeley, have taken a stab at filling this knowledge gap. Their recent study, published in Nature Climate Change, looks at the vulnerability of wind-dispersed species to climate change.

It's an important field of research, because while a fish can more easily swim toward colder waters, a tree may find its wind-blown seeds landing in places and conditions where they're not adapted to grow.

Kling is careful to point out that the researchers weren't asking how climate change was going to change wind; other research suggests there likely won't be big shifts in global wind patterns.

Instead the study involved exploring those wind patterns — including direction, speed and variability — across the globe. The wind data was then integrated with data on climate variation to build models trying to predict vulnerability patterns showing where wind may either help or hinder biodiversity from responding to climate change.

One of the study's findings was that wind-dispersed or wind-pollinated trees in the tropics and on the windward sides of mountain ranges are more likely to be vulnerable, since the wind isn't likely to move those dispersers in the right direction for a climate-friendly environment.

The researchers also looked specifically at lodgepole pines, a species that's both wind-dispersed and wind-pollinated.

They found that populations of lodgepole pines that already grow along the warmer and drier edges of the species' current range could very well be under threat due to rising temperatures and related climate alterations.

"As temperature increases, we need to think about how the genes that are evolved to tolerate drought and heat are going to get to the portions of the species' range that are going to be getting drier and hotter," says Kling. "So that's what we were able to take a stab at predicting and estimating with these wind models — which populations are mostly likely to receive those beneficial genes in the future."

That's important, he says, because wind-dispersed species like pines, willows and poplars are often keystone species whole ecosystems depend upon — especially in temperate and boreal forests.

And there are even more plants that rely on pollen dispersal by wind.

"That's going to be important for moving genes from the warmer parts of a species' range to the cooler parts of the species' range," he says. "This is not just about species' ranges shifting, but also genetic changes within species."

Kling says this line of research is just beginning, and much more needs to be done to test these models in the field. But there could be important conservation-related benefits to that work.

"All these species and genes need to migrate long distances and we can be thinking more about habitat connectivity and the vulnerability of these systems," he says.

The more we learn, the more we may be able to do to help species adapt.

"The idea is that there will be some landscapes where the wind is likely to help these systems naturally adapt to climate change without much intervention, and other places where land managers might really need to intervene," he says. "That could involve using assisted migration or assisted gene flow to actually get in there, moving seeds or planting trees to help them keep up with rapid climate change."


Tara Lohan is deputy editor of The Revelator and has worked for more than a decade as a digital editor and environmental journalist focused on the intersections of energy, water and climate. Her work has been published by The Nation, American Prospect, High Country News, Grist, Pacific Standard and others. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis. http://twitter.com/TaraLohan

Reposted with permission from The Revelator.

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An illustration depicts the extinct woolly rhino. Heinrich Harder / Wikimedia Commons

The last Ice Age eliminated some giant mammals, like the woolly rhino. Conventional thinking initially attributed their extinction to hunting. While overhunting may have contributed, a new study pinpointed a different reason for the woolly rhinos' extinction: climate change.

The last of the woolly rhinos went extinct in Siberia nearly 14,000 years ago, just when the Earth's climate began changing from its frozen conditions to something warmer, wetter and less favorable to the large land mammal. DNA tests conducted by scientists on 14 well-preserved rhinos point to rapid warming as the culprit, CNN reported.

"Humans are well known to alter their environment and so the assumption is that if it was a large animal it would have been useful to people as food and that must have caused its demise," says Edana Lord, a graduate student at the Center for Paleogenetics in Stockholm, Sweden, and co-first author of the paper, Smithsonian Magazine reported. "But our findings highlight the role of rapid climate change in the woolly rhino's extinction."

The study, published in Current Biology, notes that the rhino population stayed fairly consistent for tens of thousands of years until 18,500 years ago. That means that people and rhinos lived together in Northern Siberia for roughly 13,000 years before rhinos went extinct, Science News reported.

The findings are an ominous harbinger for large species during the current climate crisis. As EcoWatch reported, nearly 1,000 species are expected to go extinct within the next 100 years due to their inability to adapt to a rapidly changing climate. Tigers, eagles and rhinos are especially vulnerable.

The difference between now and the phenomenon 14,000 years ago is that human activity is directly responsible for the current climate crisis.

To figure out the cause of the woolly rhinos' extinction, scientists examined DNA from different rhinos across Siberia. The tissue, bone and hair samples allowed them to deduce the population size and diversity for tens of thousands of years prior to extinction, CNN reported.

Researchers spent years exploring the Siberian permafrost to find enough samples. Then they had to look for pristine genetic material, Smithsonian Magazine reported.

It turns out the wooly rhinos actually thrived as they lived alongside humans.

"It was initially thought that humans appeared in northeastern Siberia fourteen or fifteen thousand years ago, around when the woolly rhinoceros went extinct. But recently, there have been several discoveries of much older human occupation sites, the most famous of which is around thirty thousand years old," senior author Love Dalén, a professor of evolutionary genetics at the Center for Paleogenetics, said in a press release.

"This paper shows that woolly rhino coexisted with people for millennia without any significant impact on their population," Grant Zazula, a paleontologist for Canada's Yukon territory and Simon Fraser University who was not involved in the research, told Smithsonian Magazine. "Then all of a sudden the climate changed and they went extinct."