This is a guide outlining the alternatives to plastic as a material, and the alternatives to different plastic products and items.
Alternative Materials To Plastic
Alternative materials to plastic can be completely different materials to plastic, or they can be modified types of plastic.
The material used depends on the application or activity the material has to be used for.
Some examples include:
- Wood – one example of using wood over plastic as an example is for furniture. One of the benefits of wood might be that there may not be as much micro plastic in the indoor air to inhale, which accuweather.com outlines may be the case with plastic furniture.
- Natural Fibres – this example applies to textiles and clothing. Synthetic and plastic fibres can come from acrylic, nylon, spandex, and polyester. Whereas, natural fibres may be alternatives – such as organic cotton, hemp, linen/flax, and others.
- Metal – metal can commonly be used for drink cans and bottles over plastic or plastic lined drink cups and bottles.
- Glass – glass can commonly be used for jars, containers and bottles (with a plastic seal, plastic lid, or metal bottle top) over plastic jars, containers and bottles.
- Paper – good for some types of packaging and wraps for items.
- Bioplastics – traditional plastics are derived from fossil fuel based feedstock. Bioplastics are derived from renewable bio mass sources such as vegetable fats and oils (just as one example). Bioplastics do have limitations though – they have limited applications commercially, and they aren’t all biodegradable or better than fossil fuel derived plastics in some ways (wikipedia.org)
- PDK Plastic – regular plastics can only be recycled a certain amount of times before they end up having to be sent to landfill. Poly(diketoenamine) is a plastic that is still in development this point, and is being developed to be remade/reused without having to go to landfill. The intention of this plastic is to use it for textiles, foams, and even 3D printing (qualitylogoproducts.com).
Just because a material is a plastic alternative, it doesn’t mean it’s better from a sustainability or eco stand point.
An assessment of the lifecycle of the material needs to be done (from sourcing and production, all the way through to end of use and waste management/re-use).
In addition to the materials above, two eco friendly options and alternatives to plastic may be:
- No Material/Zero Waste – people often think they always have to replace plastic with something. Although, for some things, no material at all needs to be used. For example, people may choose to buy fruit and vegetables that come without plastic packaging. A banana is a good example of this – it comes with it’s own natural packaging i.e. the banana peel.
- Second Hand & Re-Used Materials – rather than buying a new bag, some people choose to buy a second hand bag from a thrift store, or make their own bag out of waste materials.
Alternatives To Plastic Bags
The most common plastic bag is perhaps the shopping bag:
- Shopping Bags – alternative plastic shopping bags can be made of jute/hessian, cotton, hemp, and other natural fibres.
Alternatives To Plastic Packaging
Plastic packaging comes in many forms and types, and is used for many different applications:
- Wrap Packaging – regular paper is sometimes used for food wrapping. Bees wax wrap is sometimes used for food wraps too.
- Tray Packaging – recycled cardboard trays are replacing plastic trays in some supermarkets (Woolworths in Australia is one example of this).
- Containers & Storage Packaging – paper bags, with plant based bag liners and tin ties can be used of plastic packaging to transport and deliver goods. One example of this is thesourcebulkfoods.com.au: “Products for delivery are packed in biodegradable and compostable unbleached Eco paper bags made from sustainably sourced materials. The bags are lined with a 100% plant based film (PLA) which is made from natural starch derived from plants such as corn and sugar cane. … [the] product bags have a tin-tie close, so no sticky tape is needed to seal the bags. The bags can be re-used for lunch boxes or storage before final compost. To compost the bags remove the tin tie first. You can reuse the tin-tie in the kitchen.”
Also note, different plastic packaging can be used at various stages of the product lifecycle – for example, the transport/delivery stage, and the in-store stage.
Alternatives To Plastic Bottles
Alternatives to plastic bottles most commonly include metal/steel re-usable drink bottles, and glass beverage bottles.
Alternatives To Plastic Wrap
As mentioned above, regular paper can be used as a wrap.
But, bees wax food wrap is also used as another example.
Alternatives To Plastic Bin Bags & Bin Liners
A few alternatives (that may be used in conjunction with each other) to plastic bin liners and plastic bin bags are:
- Set up a compost bin for compostable waste
- Consider using paper as a bin liners for dry waste
- Use no bin liner, individually wrap wet waste in paper, and empty bin directly into kerbside collection bin
- Use a fully biodegradable and compostable bin liner made from bioplastic or something similar
Some people also choose to start changing the things they buy so that they buy more compostable and recyclable items, so they have less reliance on plastic bin liners and general waste.
Alternatives To Plastic Cups
People use metal cups, ceramic cups, and glass cups.
These types of cups are often reusable.
Alternatives To Plastic Straws
Paper straws and metal straws are used as alternatives – both with their own pros and cons.
Alternatives To Plastic Cutlery
Metal cutlery is a common alternative to plastic cutlery.
Alternatives To Plastic Sandwich Bags
Bees wax food wrap is a common alternative to plastic sandwich bags.
But also, some people use washable and re-usable glass or metal food containers with a sealable plastic cover/lid.
Biodegradable, Eco Friendly, & Sustainable Alternatives To Plastic
Not all alternatives to plastic are biodegradable, eco friendly or sustainable.
Zero waste or zero new materials is usually the best option, followed by something that is reusable or secondhand, followed by something that is disposable but eco friendly or sustainable (usually natural products and resources with minimal additives, that replenish quickly, with minimal resource input, and break down naturally or can be re-used – or something similar along those lines).
- Biodegradable – Biodegradable labels can mean different things. If something is labelled as biodegradable, you want to look at what it is made of, and look at what conditions it is biodegradable under. The same applies to compostable. Commercial landfill conditions might not match the conditions an item is designed to be biodegradable under.
- Eco Friendly – can mean anything. To get a real gauge if something is eco friendly, a full lifecycle assessment needs to be carried out. Just as one example, plastic is actually more eco friendly in some ways at some stages of the product or material life cycle than materials like glass or metal. One example of this is the weight of plastic (which is very light) and how flexible and durable it is (which allows more of it to be packed onto transport vehicles) – this can lead to less fuel being used, more product being transported with the same vehicle, less greenhouse gas emissions, less energy and resources used in production, and so on. So, you really have to dig down and get detailed and specific for a true eco friendly assessment.
- Sustainability – can mean a range of things. You have to define what you mean by sustainable (what factor are you measuring it by … sustainable use of energy, water, land, emissions, raw materials, or something else like sustainable in terms of waste management and contributing to a circular economy?)
Also note, practicality and feasibility has to be considered.
There’s no use using a plastic alternative if it’s going to make something unsafe (especially with food or in the medical/health field), or lead to huge inefficiency (like for example when it comes to waste management, recycling, the use of virgin materials vs trying to make use existing materials, and so on).
In some instances too, there may just not be a suitable plastic alternative for some applications and activities.