In a recent article in Fast Company Kristin Toussaint talks about ways to help solve our climate crisis and our need to move away from using fossil fuels to produce non-recyclable and especially single use products.
Several plant-based options and biomaterials solutions have entered the marketplace and companies are producing shoes and mobile device cases, cutlery and take-away containers out of plants. Plant matter is biodegradable or can be composted, and biomaterials such as wood, corn, hemp, and cotton can be grown over and over.
Mathis Wackernagel the founder of Global Footprint Network, a research group that each year calculates Earth Overshoot Day, the date by which humanity has used up its annual allotment of Earth’s resources said, “There is no other future than a regenerative future, whether we like it or not.” By regenerative, he means we need to live off what we can renew.
Wachernagel says a change to a sustainable future will come with some short-term pain. We know the planet will be able to produce more biological materials for the future but simply banning single-use plastics in favour of compostable or biodegradable packaging isn’t a complete solution to our waste problem. We need the waste infrastructure to deal with these new materials whilst at the same time addressing our issue of excess consumption.
In 2018, the world produced 359 million tonnes of plastics. Are we ready to handle that same volume of plant-made material? “As we go out of carbon, we will put much more demand on the rest of the planet,” Wackernagel says. “There’s not an abundance of plant matter we can just tap into.”
Experts are already concerned about how we can adequately feed our growing population, especially if we can grow enough fruits and vegetables for everyone. We would have to devote more of our land to agriculture, and that will require taking away land from livestock farming. Land dedicated for pasture grazing and for crops for animal feed accounts for 77 per cent of global farming land, yet livestock produces 18pc of the world’s calories and 37pc of total protein.
Plant-based items are a welcome development as a transition away from plastic, but we must be careful about how we support our vegetation-filled future. Transitioning to a world with more products made of plants must happen alongside other initiatives such as how to best use bio-waste to make sure we have compost facilities to biodegrade these objects.
Instead of a one-to-one swap of plastics to plant-based materials, we need to change the entire processes for making and disposing all the products we use throughout our life. Our current waste stream is linear, meaning we take resources, convert them to a product, and then that product ends up in a landfill, and new products continually make that same, straight line journey. This must change and quickly.
For consumers who want to buy plant-based items that have the biggest benefits for the planet, we need to get smarter when it comes to identifying products that are made of plants, and how those plants were sourced. We need to make sure that whatever plant material is being used it is produced from sustainably managed sources.
We all have a part to play and none of us can excuse ourselves from being more responsible consumers.
Gordon is the former president and chief executive of BMMI. He can be reached at [email protected]