Plastic is one example of a daily life essential that could be produced to be more environmentally friendly using renewable resources. It is a material that humans depend on and have been widely used since hundreds of years ago in important fields including medical industries, buildings, transportation, and packaging. It is also viewed to be sustainable by many people due to its inexpensiveness, light material, and convenience.
However, they are non-renewable resources derived from fossil fuels that can take many years for them to decompose. Fossil fuels are hydrocarbons that can take a million years to produce energy resources for various fields and uses.
The accurate time frame for the depletion of fossil fuel is hard to be predicted as it depends on the consumption rate by humans and the amount of supply left. The limited supply of this resource has become a bigger problem as the world’s population rises.
Furthermore, a problem discovered during producing and burning of fossil fuels is the toxicity released to the air and the ocean when a high amount of carbon dioxide, CO2 is released. While limiting the usage rate is the only current solution, it is certainly not enough to sustain the massive energy needed for the production of plastics.
Since plastics are critical to modern life, the discovery has brought scientists to come up with a sustainable solution to produce plastics derived from renewable sources instead of the non-renewable resources derived from fossil fuels.
One that has been introduced is biodegradable plastic, to be specific, it is polylactic acid (PLA) which can be produced from fermentative lactic acid through dark fermentation of food waste. They are easier to be degraded by the bacteria when certain conditions needed are met.
The decomposition of lactic acid by microorganisms would emit CO2, but this is effectively carbon stored in the plant matter that originally produced them. As a result, the net greenhouse gas emissions are close to zero, which significantly improves the efficacy of renewable-sourced plastics.
In terms of economics, the discovery has contributed beneficial impacts as biodegradable plastics have caught the market’s attention. Some companies, such as Ecoware, have also opted for green plastics to play a part in reducing carbon footprint which can be beneficial for both the producers and customers due to the current increasing awareness of pollution.
Moreover, the production of renewable sourced plastics does not have competition with agricultural land. In 2019, only 0.016% of land was used for their raw materials to produce plastics, as stated in European Bioplastics, and it may grow to 0.021% in 2024.
This clearly shows how the production of food is not affected by the use of crops for plastic production so this method should be continued to limit the use of fossil fuels because the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the production are lower. Thus, it has served greatly for the economy as well as the environment.
Despite all the benefits, biodegradable plastic is often viewed wrongly as material that can be freely thrown away in the environment that will be fully decomposed. Two years ago, a study was published regarding how scientists made a test whether the supposedly biodegradable bag would be broken down after it is left in the ocean for 3 years. They are unable to break down in the ocean without meeting the requirements needed to decompose. Although the material is easier to breakdown, discarding them with improper way is harmful to the planet and society.
In summary, using renewable-sourced plastics is a helpful initiative to reduce the use of fossil fuels together with CO2 emissions by identifying the economic and environmental impacts. Having sustainable plastics produced has benefited society in many ways, which is possible due to polylactic acid (PLA) derived from waste products. However, it is not the definite answer to combatting plastic pollution as it all depends on how responsible producers and consumers are. Therefore, scientists could develop a further enhanced solution to the problem.
NOTE: Aisya Sofea Zamari is currently studying Bachelor of Arts, Majoring in Psychology, University of Queensland as a first year student.