Plastic is one of the most environmentally harmful substances we use in modern society. Many types of plastic are derived from natural gas, oil, coal and other depletable natural resources, putting a strain on finite materials. Production and delivery consumes even more energy. But the worst impact of plastic comes from its longevity; traditional plastic is not biodegradable, so plastic waste is difficult to get rid of. On top of that, a terrifying 91 percent of plastic created today is not recycled.

Thankfully, researchers are stepping up to solve this problem once and for all — and there are some promising new breakthroughs that might set us on a course to do it.

The Plastic Replacement Problem

Many high-level solutions have been proposed to deal with the plastic problem, including eliminating plastics entirely. The problem is, we rely on plastics heavily. Plastic is extraordinarily versatile — strong, flexible and easy to produce. It’s in everything from product packaging to medical devices, so finding a single material to fill in for all its potential applications would likely be impossible.

Instead, researchers are working to find a way to make plastic less impactful to produce, easier to recycle or, possibly, biodegradable, so we can worry less about how much we’re throwing away.

Scientific Breakthroughs

These are some of the biggest scientific breakthroughs that are allowing us to advance our plastics:

  1. Biomaterial to replace plastic barrier coatings. Scientists have recently put together a polysaccharide polyelectrolyte complex that could serve the same function as plastic barrier coatings, with a fraction of the environmental impact. The material is made from cellulose pulp (from wood or cotton) and chitosan, which is a derivative of chitin — you may recognize chitin as the core material in animal exoskeletons, like those of insects and crustaceans (and in case you’re worried about animal welfare, the chitin is derived from shed exoskeletons and leftovers from consumed crustaceans, which are plentiful). The material is fully compostable, and can be used for many things, including water-resistant paper, ceiling tile coatings and even food coatings.
  2. Mass producible biodegradable plastic. Biodegradable plastic has actually been around for several years. With similar qualities to traditional plastic, this biodegradable alternative eventually decomposes, reducing its environmental impact to a bare minimum. The problem has been finding a way to scale production; this plastic is sensitive to heat and moisture, so its applications have been limited and its ability to be mass-produced was negligible. Now, scientists have discovered that one simple new step (raising the temperature and slowly allowing the bio-plastic fibers to cool) could greatly increase the plastic’s resistance to the elements. The material itself is polylactic acid, which can be made from fermented corn starch, sugarcane and other similar plants. The process still isn’t perfect, but with a handful of breakthroughs, we could be mass producing biodegradable plastic within the next several years.
  3. Advanced recycling. New materials can help us reduce the amount of plastic we produce, consume and dispose of in the future, but what about all the plastic that’s currently in circulation (and occupying space in our landfills)? Some researchers have refocused their attention to find new ways to make use of old materials. For example, some pioneers in India have produced new technology that allows them to create functional tiles from discarded plastic bags. Breakthroughs like these could, slowly but surely, find new uses for the mass amounts of plastic that would otherwise go unrecycled, and simultaneously prevent the need to invest in new resources, which would bear an environmental impact of their own.

It may be years or even decades before these and other advances make it onto the global scene, especially since most of them haven’t been tested in full-scale conditions. In the meantime, you can reduce our collective plastic impact by adjusting your own lifestyle. You can reuse your plastics regularly, and recycle them when you no longer need them. You can avoid buying plastics as much as possible, instead relying on more easily renewable materials. And you can support these new types of plastics when they start to emerge on the market.

Feature image courtesy of Shutterstock

By Jenna Cyprus

Jenna is a freelance writer and business consultant who covers business, technology and entrepreneurship. She's lectured for several universities and worked with more than 100 businesses over the course of the past 15 years. She's a mother of two kids, and loves to go camping, hiking and skiing with her family.