It would take a major reshaping of global agriculture to generate enough material to replace petroleum-based plastic with plant-based ones. Circularity has to be the end goal.
By Kristin Toussaint
To solve our climate crisis, there’s no doubt that we need to change the way we create—and dispose—of everyday things. Nonrenewable fossil fuels are used to make a nearly endless list of items, from plastic forks to styrofoam packaging to synthetic fabrics to steel and concrete. Not only do these products require limited resources and significant amounts of energy to produce, they can be nearly impossible to get rid of. Our recycling system is inadequate, these materials take thousands of years to break down, and so our planet continues to fill up with trash.
As a solution, plant-based items and biomaterials have flooded the market. Companies are creating shoes and cellphone cases, cutlery and to-go containers, and even entire buildings out of plants. On paper, it sounds like the answer. Plant matter is biodegradable or can be composted, and biomaterials such as wood, corn, hemp, and cotton can be grown over and over—and these products often have smaller carbon footprints than their fossil fuel counterparts. A shirt made of polyester, a type of plastic now found in about 60% of clothing garments, has a footprint of about 12 pounds of CO2, while a shirt made of cotton has one of around 9 pounds. With more than 100 billion items of clothing produced each year, that difference can add up.
But the surge of plant-based products can also feel like just another environmental trend. Can making everything plant-based really save us from climate catastrophe? The answer is a bit more complicated than making sure everyone chooses a compostable fork over a plastic one.
The wave of plant-based products is not purely greenwashing—it’s a necessary transition, says Mathis Wackernagel, founder and president of Global Footprint Network, a sustainability research group that each year calculates Earth Overshoot Day, the date by which humanity has used up its annual allotment of Earth’s resources. “There is no other future than a regenerative future, whether we like it or not,” he says. By regenerative, he means we need to live off what we can renew, and we can’t renew fossil fuels. “Everything has to be plant-based in the end.”
But switching to a world of plant-based products won’t be easy. We can either make it a rapid transition, which Wachernagel says will come with “short-term pains,” but which will leave us with a bigger regenerative budget (as in, Earth will be able to produce more biological materials) for the future. Or we can slowly transition to plant-based products, take our time experimenting and perfecting them—but the more time we waste, the more dramatic climate change will be, and the less the Earth will be able to produce for us in the future.
Those short-term pains may be as innocuous as the inconvenience of your compostable spoon losing its integrity in your yogurt—but that’s a trade-off we need to live with. “Maybe [we] need to rejoice if the spoon gets a little wobbly,” says Wachernagel. “We need to get joy from the fact that I can put it in my own compost bin.”
Wanting a spoon made of plant material to be as durable as plastic is possible, but there’s another trade-off: It’s harder to compost. A more stable spoon is made out of bioplastic, and most compost facilities can’t handle bioplastics, says Ray Hatch, CEO of recycling services company Quest. They require high temperatures and expensive equipment, and there are only about 100 such facilities in the U.S. “The perception of the bio-based form is that they’re all the same, and they’re truly not,” he says. “[Bioplastics] have to be separated and treated separately, and if they go to the landfill, they won’t compost. They’re just as polluting and they’ll sit there like any other type of plastic.”
Simply banning single-use plastics in favor of compostable or biodegradable packaging isn’t a complete solution to our waste problem without the waste infrastructure to take in those new materials. Switching what we make things out of also doesn’t address our issue of excess—that we are making so many things in the first place. In 2018, the world produced 359 million tonnes of plastics. Are we ready to handle that same volume of plant-made material? “As we go out of carbon, we will put much much more demand on the rest of the planet,” Wackernagel says. “There’s not an abundance of plant matter we can just tap into.”
Experts are already concerned about how we can adequately feed our growing population, especially if we can grow enough fruits and vegetables for everyone. Asked if we currently have enough space to grow all the plants we’d need to make everything out of biomaterials, plus to feed our world, Carson Meredith, director of the Georgia Tech Renewable Bioproducts Institute, says he’s not sure—but that doing so would come with other costs. One would be having to devote more of our land to agriculture, and that will most likely require taking away land from livestock. Land dedicated for pasture grazing and for crops for animal feed accounts for 77% of global farming land, yet livestock produces 18% of the world’s calories and 37% of its total protein.
If we grow more crops, we also need to be conscious of how we’re growing them. Does that farm operate off of renewable energy? What about all the emissions and other environmental effects of fertilizer, which is necessary to grow plants quickly but can, if made of nitrogen, deplete soil of nutrients and contaminate drinking water and damage aquatic life. This is another cost of that switch, Meredith says: changing our industrial agriculture infrastructure to best grow that many plants (though all that energy and fertilizer use does depend on what type of plant you’re growing).
Plant-based items are a welcome development as a transition away from plastic, Meredith adds, but we have to be careful about how we forge our vegetation-filled future. Transitioning to a world with more products made of plants has to happen alongside other initiatives, from innovations in circular production to how to best use bio-waste to making sure we have compost facilities to biodegrade these objects.
Instead of a one-to-one swap of plastics to plant-based materials, we need to change the entire processes for making and disposing all the products we use throughout our life. Our current waste stream is linear, meaning we take resources, convert them to a product, and then that product ends up in a landfill, and new products continually make that same, straight journey. “We need to make it circular,” says Meredith. If products were produced in a closed loop, where at their end of life they were reused, repaired, or repurposed rather than sent to a waste facility, those materials go further, potentially leading to less energy and CO2 than continually extracting and refining new raw materials—even if those raw materials are plants.
For consumers who want to buy plant-based items that have the biggest benefits for the planet, Meredith warns to watch out for clever labels—how much of that product is actually made of plants, and how were those plants sourced? “If it’s a forest-based material, you want to make sure it’s a sustainably managed forest,” he says. Some research may require a bit of work, but still, if given the choice between paper or plastic, he says, choose paper.