Petroleum-based plastics still have most plant-based material beat for cost. Consumer demand for plastic alternatives is rising, but generally stops when the cost for products rises.
The coronavirus pandemic gave petroleum-based plastic another edge, as there has been a surge in single-use plastic.
Efforts to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus brought the use of reusable shopping bags to a halt. Stores have also banned reusable containers for their bulk-food sections, forcing people to use provided plastic bags and containers.
All this despite the fact that studies have found that the virus can survive on plastic longer than other materials.
Used for five minutes, plastics derived from fossil oil are a straight line to pollution. They don’t degrade; they break down into small, ingestible particles that spread through the environment and stay there.
Many plastic alternatives — often made from plant fiber — biodegrade back into the environment. Some can be used as compost or fertilizer to grow plants or mushrooms to be used in the products again — forming a complete circle.
A major hurdle for transitioning to those products is cost. Oil-based plastic is cheap to produce. Another reason is that plastic manufacturing is a much larger-scale and streamlined process compared to hundreds of upstart companies using different materials, processes and techniques.
There’s a Minnesota company trying to change that. Minnetonka-based Natureworks is working to develop a technique to bypass using plants. For most plant-based manufacturing, plants are broken down into their sugar and hydrocarbon components. That creates the raw material used by manufacturers — whether it's bioplastics or ethanol. This can be an energy- and water-intensive process and not cheap.
Natureworks is studying a process to turn greenhouse gases — hydrocarbons — into lactic acid, which is processed into a raw material for manufacturers.
Currently, the company processes plants to create its raw material in plants in Minnesota, Japan and the Netherlands.
Even without the process of turning the gases themselves into raw material, Natureworks is already streamlining producing plastic-alternative raw material for a variety of manufacturers, from components in cars to fiber for clothes.
So, while consumer habits might not change much for various reasons, giving consumers better alternatives could go a long way to turn our plastic use into a circle.
John Molseed is a tree-hugging Minnesota transplant making his way through his state parks passport. This column is a space for stories of people doing their part (and more) to keep Minnesota green. Send questions, comments and suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.