The state of plastic

Everyone thinks plastic is bad for the environment. Because, as we use it today, it is. Plastic is filling our landfills, clogging our waterways, its microplastics are seeping into our water, food, and even our bodies. 

Plastic as a material has allowed us to create new realms of products, which coincidentally led to a short-term-thinking consumerist era, where products are made and bought cheaply, only to be thrown away quickly. Traditionally we have used plastic as a filler material, any part or product that cannot be easily made with wood, glass or metal can usually be done cheaper and more customizable with plastics. Even worse is single-use plastic, designed only to be used once for a short period by a consumer, who then throws it away and it goes straight to a landfill. This is not to say all plastic is bad, there are fields that we have made incredible advances in, in no small part thanks to plastics such as healthcare,  medicine, & electronics. A lot of the advancements made in these fields would not have been possible if not for plastic. These advancements were also made at a time when we didn’t know the scale of consequences that producing plastics would have for the environment. 

We know more now. Today we have the information to know what plastics are doing to our environment. We know that we are killing our planet in no small part due to the burning of fossil fuels for the production of oil, gas & plastic. In fact, in 2015 plastic production from fossil fuels accounted for 15% of the global carbon budget ( the amount of greenhouse gas emissions to keep warming within the Paris Agreement goals) at 1.7 Gigatonnes of Co2. (Plastic Pollution on Course to Double by 2030, 2021). We know that the things that get produced are ending up in landfills, which is to say, moved out of our line of sight to make us feel better. We have known all of this for decades now but yet nothing has changed. This is especially hard to hear because, in today's day and age, we can easily replace these with biodegradable or infinitely reusable options, such as PDK plastic, Mycelium, Compostable PLA, or fully biodegradable PHA bioplastic. 

How much plastic as it is gets recycled? 

In 2021, US households generated around 51 Million tons of plastic waste, of which only 2.4 million tons of which was recycled. That's less than 5%. (Greenpeace, 2022)

Why is that number so low?

Unfortunately, we add certain things to the original plastic in the production process, which bond with the raw plastic material making it virtually impossible to separate and get the raw material back to be used again. These are chemical additives to alter the color, texture, durability, flexibility & heat resistance of a plastic.(Franklin-Cheung, 2023) 

The plastic production process was never designed with reuse in mind, from the start it has been virtually impossible to recycle plastics due to these additives. They bond with the hydrocarbon polymers that make up plastic and cannot be separated again. 

Even the few plastics that do get recycled, rarely get recycled more than once. When they do get recycled it's not fully cyclical either. Take a PET bottle for example, PET plastic gets recycled more than any other at 20.9% -still shockingly low - (Greenpeace, 2022). When a PET bottle gets recycled, it is melted down and then usually mixed with brand-new plastic material to bridge the gap in quality that comes from reusing the material. 

Lisa Ramsden, Greenpeace USA Senior Plastics Campaigner, said: “Corporations like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestlé, and Unilever have worked with industry front groups to promote plastic recycling as the solution to plastic waste for decades. But the data is clear: practically speaking, most plastic is just not recyclable. The real solution is to switch to systems of reuse and refill.”

Plastic alternatives

PDK Plastic 

PDK is a type of plastic that was designed with the intention of being infinitely recyclable, designed by a team at the Berkley Lab. It is made using a special process that allows it to maintain all the customizable properties of plastic with the key difference being that when it is placed in a certain acid, it detaches from any additives that were mixed in, allowing the PDK plastic to be removed and re-used. (Kovner, 2021)

This is not a full solution but it fixes half of the problem with plastic production and that is the need to continually produce more & more because they get used and then go to a landfill. This process would allow for the plastics to be produced only once, then be reused over and over. 

Compostable PLA 

PLA ( Polylactic acid ) is a bioplastic that is made from dextrose, a sugar that plants produce, and currently is mainly made from corn. It is non-toxic and will decompose into carbon dioxide, water & biomass. (World Centric, 2019) 

Compostable is not the same as biodegradable, A major drawback of this material is that while it is compostable, it will not decompose in nature, only in a commercial composter, because it needs to be heated to ~60C/140F and fed special microbes to break it down. Because these conditions don't occur in nature, if this plastic ends up anywhere besides a commercial composter it will take anywhere from 100-1000 years to break down. (Lang, 2022)

PHA Bioplastic

PHA is a new type of bioplastic that is made from organic plant material and is synthesized using bacteria, to make a plastic-like material that can be used in fields such as packaging, medicine, and agriculture. A huge benefit of this material is that it is fully biodegradable in natural environments meaning that any consumer worldwide can compost it without worry. (Acharjee et al., 2022) An unfortunate drawback of this material is that it is new, so production costs are high and there is still more R&D to be done before you will likely see it on the shelves. 


Mycelium is what mushrooms grow out of, it is the root network that connects virtually all plant life. Not only all of that but because of the decomposing nature of fungi you can grow mycelium out of nothing but compost, turning garbage useful once again. It is also fire-proof, waterproof, and strong enough to build houses out of it (Ilvy Bonnefin, 2017). It is as natural a material as it gets and so will biodegrade anywhere natural in just a couple of days. Companies like IKEA are using it to make biodegradable packaging already and the applications can range from furniture production to insulation. 

 Nature knows no trash. 

Nature knows no trash. We are covering our planet in billions of tons of plastic waste- BILLIONS - because we don't know how to mimic nature properly (Global Plastic Waste, 2023). If we got rid of the notion that products and objects have a set lifetime, and once that timer is out we should throw them “away", we could get rid of trash all together, reuse all of our materials infinitely and work with nature in our consumerism rather than against it. Because if we’re being honest with ourselves the concept of “away" is bullshit, it doesn't actually exist, all it does is move it out of our line of sight. 

We can reuse materials such as metals and plastics infinitely if we produce & reuse them correctly, keeping them clean of any additives that are not removable. We can work with nature to create other products, using plants as biodegradable building materials, that when we are done with, we can return to nature and give back its nutrients to the environment. 


New Greenpeace Report: Plastic Recycling Is A Dead-End Street—Year After Year, Plastic Recycling Declines Even as Plastic Waste Increases. (2019). Greenpeace USA.
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Plastic pollution on course to double by 2030. (2021, October 21). UN News.
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