Single use plastic straws on yellow background

Plastic Problems

“Vegan spider silk” and 4 other sustainable alternatives to single-use plastics

Goodbye, plastic straws.

Getty

You use this item only once — okay, maybe twice — but it lingers in landfills, pollutes the oceans, and takes centuries to disappear.

We’re talking about single-use plastics. These disposable items wreak havoc on the planet, one plastic spork at a time.

But scientists are proposing a new solution to the single-use plastics problem. A study published Thursday in the journal Nature Communications reveals a newly created material that mimics the properties of spider silk. This energy-efficient alternative is compostable and just a strong as traditional plastic.

It’s also just one on a laundry list of other innovative, sustainable, plant-based materials scientists hope can solve the plastic problem. Other potential replacements include:

  • Edible plant packaging
  • Next-gen biodegradable plastics
  • Nanofibers from coffee grounds
  • Mushroom tissue

What is single-use plastic?

Single-use plastics such as utensils and straws are contributing to greenhouse gas emissions and polluting ocean ecosystems. Getty

Single-use plastics are exactly that: Plastic items that are used once — or for a short period of time — before being discarded.

The most common types of single-use plastic pop up in packaging and food consumption. Some examples include:

  • Utensils (forks, spoons, etc.)
  • Bags
  • Takeout containers
  • Straws
  • Bottle caps and lids
  • Food wrappers
  • Cigarette butts

What is wrong with single-use plastic?

Single-use plastics litter oceans, where they can harm animals like sea turtles.Getty

Like most plastic products, single-use plastics are made using fossil fuels, which emit greenhouse gases. These contribute to the climate crisis.

Scientists estimate that simply extracting fossil fuels and transporting them for plastic production emits an annual 12.5 to 13.5 million metric tons of greenhouse gases. Turning these fossil fuels into plastics leads to the emission of 184 to 213 million metric tons each year.

Perhaps the most devastating aspect of single-use plastics lies in their disposal. In 2017, the American Association of Science reported:

  • Over 9.1 billion tons of plastic have been produced since the 1950s
  • 79 percent of the plastic went to landfills or in the natural environment
  • Only 9 percent of that plastic was recycled

A March 2021 study published in PLOS Biology found that humans produced 380 million metric tons of plastic in 2015. That number is expected to double by 2050.

Single-use plastics, which get thrown out on a daily basis, typically end up in landfills. It takes roughly 200 years for a plastic straw to decompose. These products stick around in landfills for centuries, contributing to our growing waste problem.

When these products don’t end up in landfills, they linger in the natural environment — often making their way into the ocean, where they threaten marine life. Plastic has wound up all around the globe, from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch to the bottom of the ocean.

According to the European Commission, the most common single-use plastics make up 70 percent of all marine trash.

We’ve all seen the images of turtles being caught in discarded plastic, but ocean animals can also swallow this plastic, leading to intestinal problems and even death. That plastic can even end up back on your dinner table.

What are alternatives to single-use plastic?

Scientists create “vegan spider silk” that could work as an alternative to single-use plastics.Xampla

You might think of something like a metal or bamboo straw, but many sustainability advocates have questioned the value of these popular alternatives.

For example, a 2018 project led by Humboldt State University researchers found that some popular alternative straws release more carbon dioxide than a single plastic straw when you factor in their production, transport and disposal:

  • Plastic straw: 1.46 grams of carbon dioxide
  • Bamboo straw: 38.8 grams of carbon dioxide
  • Stainless steel straw: 217 grams of carbon dioxide

But scientists are finding new ways to get around the single-use plastic issue without requiring us to buy more stuff or contributing further to the climate crisis.

Here are 5 efforts to revolutionize plastic — some are already here, while others will be here soon.

5. A “vegan spider silk” inspired material

Spider silk is tensile but strong, allowing spiders to ensnare prey much larger than themselves.

Now, scientists have created a sustainable material from plant proteins that mimic the properties of spider silk. The researchers aim to mass-produce these materials for commercial use.

These boxes are made of a material inspired by spider silk. Xampla

Created by Xampla — a company affiliated with Cambridge University — the so-called “vegan silk” will be able to replace common single-use household products, such as laundry detergent pods. Consumers can also compost these at home, which is a huge plus since most degradable plastics need to be decomposed in an industrial facility.

4. Edible plant packaging

Seaweed has become popular as a sustainable superfood, but its superpowers also make it a promising plastic alternative.

Notpla, a sustainable, packaging start-up, creates edible, biodegradable packaging material from seaweed and other plants. Their products biodegrade in 4 to 6 weeks, whereas normal plastic can take centuries to break down.

The original crowdfunding pitch is explained in this video.

Or you can just eat it — that seems to be the preferred method, according to the company website. For example, in 2019 whiskey company Glenlivet presented its limited-edition Capsule Collection — Notpla capsules filled with booze.

3. Next-gen biodegradable plastics

Many have heralded the arrival of biodegradable plastics, which can be broken down and decomposed with the help of microbes. Some, though not all, biodegradable plastics are also compostable, meaning they are produced from organic materials rather than fossil fuels.

However, these biodegradable plastics are often not fully biodegradable. Instead, they’re the product of clever marketing and may take decades to fully break down — much like regular plastics.

This plastic breaks down entirely after two weeks.Christopher DelRe, UC Berkeley

But in April, scientists at the University of California, Berkeley presented a way to break down plastics in a matter of weeks using just heat and water.

“We can solve this continuing problem of single-use plastics not being biodegradable,” reported senior author Ting Xu, a UC Berkeley professor.

2. Coffee grounds

In 2020, researchers found cellulose nanofibers can be extracted from coffee grounds, providing a potential alternative to single-use plastic products. Scientists have high hopes for converting these nanofibers into biodegradable packaging.

Cellulose nanofibers extracted from coffee grounds can be integrated into a polymer.Izuru Kawamura et. al.

Lead researcher Izuru Kawamura, an associate professor at Yokohama National University Graduate School of Engineering Science, said “we aim to make a transparent disposal coffee cup and straw with an additive comprising cellulose nanofibers from spent coffee grounds."

1. Mushroom tissue

Every day, scientists are learning about the magical benefits of mushrooms, from their health impacts to the ways they can help us in outer space.

This mushroom packaging has two ingredients: mycelium and hemp hurds. Evocative Design

But scientists at Evocative Design have proposed an even wilder use for this fungus: biodegradable packaging that decomposes after use.

Their unique technology, which debuted in 2006, uses the mushroom’s root structure — known as mycelium — to create compostable alternatives to single-use plastics. You can find their mushroom packaging options here.