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4 Plastic Alternatives That Aren't as Eco-Friendly as You Think

It’s so encouraging to see the eco-movement continue to grow. Here in Britain, reducing plastic waste has replaced price as the most important concern for shoppers. How awesome is that?! However, while more of us try to avoid plastic, a raft of ‘sustainable plastic alternatives' flood the market, which sounds like a good thing, but...

Unfortunately, while some plastic replacements may offer a minor improvement, many are definitely not the answer. At the rate at which we consume plastic as a society, almost any substitute material is likely to cause problems. We looked at a few common plastic alternatives and their environmental impact. In many cases, the better solution might actually be easier, and cheaper, it just requires a little lateral thinking!

Paper bags

Plastic bags are a symbol of our problematic addiction to single-use plastics. They pile up in landfills, block storm drains and are a hazard to marine life. Many stores have returned to paper bags as an ‘environmentally friendly’ alternative. But did you know that an Australian Government study in 2007 found that paper bags actually have a higher carbon footprint than their plastic counterparts? 

What should we use instead? 

With love, care and a little bit of repair an existing bag that you already have can last for years thus reducing your waste and carbon footprint. Or a second-hand one.

Biodegradable cups

There has been huge pressure put on large coffee chains to replace their cups with bioplastics. Alas, much like paper bags, replacing coffee cups with bioplastics just isn’t a sustainable answer. In the UK alone we use 7 million disposable coffee cups per day. In the US that number is an astonishing 400 million. The land, water, pesticides, fertilisers and transport required to produce that amount of bioplastic (commonly made from corn starch) is not justifiable. 

What should we use instead? 

Use a keep cup or other reusable cup. Buy it once, take it with you and enjoy your cup of joe guilt-free. 

Paper and pasta straws

Between the US and the UK, we dump an estimated 200 billion plastic straws every year. Paper straws are thicker than plastic ones, and so tend to have a higher carbon footprint. Recently, we’ve seen a surge in popularity of pasta straws at bars and cafés. Pasta straws may not contribute to our plastic waste, but they do add to our food waste, which devours water and releases methane into the atmosphere as it decomposes.

What to use instead?

When it comes to sustainability, less is always more. So if there is no medical need for a straw, the best bet is to go without. If, however, a straw is necessary, go for a dishwasher-safe metal one.

Glass bottles

Much like paper bags, glass bottles have seen a resurgence as an alternative to plastic. Sadly, glass takes twice as much energy to produce. So unless washed and reused, glass bottles are not as sustainable as you think.

What to use instead? 

When it comes to glass bottles, the simple answer is to reuse them and try to eliminate single-use bottles.

Plastic alternatives aren’t going to save the world. It's just not enough to keep consuming at the rate that we are. Instead of simply swapping out materials, we need to think about making bigger systemic changes.  As well as making better choices, we should change our behaviours as a society. Consume less, and waste less. Buy second-hand, swap, re-use, repair and make much more of the stuff we already have!

Related reading for bookworms – we love George Monbiot and John Thackara on systemic thinking. Also, Cradle to Cradle, which is all about the circular economy

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