How plastic pollution is choking the planet, and what’s being done about it

Plastic bottles and other garbage float in Uru Uru Lake near Oruro, Bolivia, Thursday, March 25, 2021.
Click to play video: 'Biodegradable solutions to world’s plastic problem emerging from natural world' Biodegradable solutions to world’s plastic problem emerging from natural world
WATCH: Biodegradable solutions to world’s plastic problem emerging from natural world – Mar 30, 2022

As the world buckles under the weight of billions of tonnes of plastic pollution, some unlikely solutions are emerging — and in the form of mushrooms, lentils and wheat.

These are some of the natural substances whose byproducts can also be used to chemically engineer polymer, the building block of plastic.

Clearly, solutions are needed.

The world is drowning in plastic, with 400 million tonnes — equivalent to the weight of 3,400 CN Towers — produced every year.

And recycling, as important as that is, is barely keeping up.

In Canada, just nine per cent of plastic waste ever gets recycled, according to Environment and Climate Change Canada. The overwhelming majority of plastic — around 86 per cent — ends up in the landfill.

But fungi?

They are plentiful and easy to harvest, and it turns out their root networks, known as mycelium, can be transformed into everything from packaging to faux leather — even coffins.

 

 

Last year, designer Stella McCartney announced a new product line featuring non-animal, non-plastic products made with mycelium. Brands like Adidas and Hermes are jumping on board as well.

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Production and sale of such high-end items is still in its infancy.

But that’s not stopping labs in Israel, Indonesia, Italy and the United States, among others, from sprouting up.

And it’s not just ‘shrooms.

Governments around the world, including in Canada, are getting in on the action.

In January, Ottawa announced it was providing $600,000 in funding to a lab at McGill University that is developing a type of material called “aquaplastic” made from biologically engineered microorganisms.

Provincial governments are taking the plunge, too.

Plastic is normally made by chemically engineering compounds found in petrochemicals. It’s cheap, flexible, durable, and light, and it revolutionized the world of manufacturing once it started becoming mass produced in the middle of the 20th century.

But it turns out there are lots of solutions to the world’s plastic problem that come from entirely biodegradable compounds found in nature. It’s just a question of tapping into them.

Taking the ‘pulse’ of the planet 

On the Prairies, in a chemistry lab at the University of Saskatchewan, researcher Bishnu Acharya has found a lifeline for the planet … in lentils.

His team is working on an alternative using the leftover starch and protein from these pulses, which are plentiful in the province. They’re also creating polymers and natural fillers, the building blocks of plastic, using the leftover waste of agricultural products such as wheat and flax straw.

“There could be some opportunity for this bio-based material to replace single-use plastics,” says Acharya, who is under no illusions that bioplastics will replace all plastic, which is found in virtually every product created for the consumer marketplace today.

Single-use plastics come in many forms, and are made with different types of resins. They’re used once, and then discarded. UN Environment

The challenge, he says, is versatility: bioplastics can’t be moulded in all the different ways that conventional plastic can. So, Acharya says, “we have to compromise somewhere.”

It means, at least for now, bioplastics are primarily being developed for very specific applications, like medical devices, or single-use plastics, which the Liberal government has vowed to ban as early as the end of this year.

Read more: Liberals release long-awaited regulations to ban single-use plastics, but there’s a loophole

Bioplastics, including those made from mycelium, currently account for less than one per cent of the world’s total plastic production.

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But, says Acharya, momentum “is slowly building” for a shift to cleaner alternatives.

Wishcycling’ 

For decades, recycling has been touted as a solution to the world’s addiction to plastic. It’s important, but experts say, reducing and reusing is even more important.

A marketing campaign from the 1970s to encourage recycling. U.S. Library of Congress

The popularity of recycling has even led to a concept called “wishcycling.” That’s when someone tosses something into the blue bin in the hopes that it can be recycled, even though it can’t.

The United Nations Environment Programme estimates that only 10 per cent of the 400 million tonnes of plastic is produced each year around the world.

“We really live in the age of plastic,” says Juan José Alava, who runs the Ocean Pollution Research Unit at the University of British Columbia. “This is a plastic planet … and evidence of the human footprint that we have inflicted on our planet.”

Experts concur that recycling, while widely perceived as the solution to the world’s plastic pollution problem, has its limitations and falls far short of a cure-all.

Most plastic that is put in the blue bin doesn’t end up getting recycled, and in many countries around the world, recycling programs are very weak or non-existent.

For plastic recycling to work, there has to be a business case for it, and Bud Fraser, a sustainability expert at UBC, says there often just isn’t one.

“The business case is challenging in many cases,” he says. For example, if the price of oil is low, it might be cheaper for a manufacturer to source new plastic, as opposed to using recycled plastic pellets, which can be more expensive.

Re-thinking recycling

There is a wide array of products in Canada that can’t be recycled — or that aren’t because it’s cheaper just to trash them.

In some cities, even plastic items marked “biodegradable” or “compostable” cannot be recycled and should instead be put in the garbage bin.

Confusing rules just exacerbate the problem, says Karen Storry, a senior engineer and recycling expert at Metro Vancouver, a group of local municipalities that manages the region’s services.

Storry says she’s been advocating with the federal government, which is in charge of labelling laws, to come up with a clear standard for what is and isn’t recyclable nationwide.

“[Ottawa] really need[s] to look at eliminating the confusion by making sure that only things that truly are accepted at most of the recycling facilities in Canada are labelled that way,” she said.

To solve the problem of what can and can’t be recycled, the City of Toronto has developed an online Waste Wizard to help residents sort out fact from fiction.

In spite of these efforts, even those in the recycling industry concur that the world isn’t going to get rid of plastic any time soon.

“The reality is that plastic is everywhere right now,” says David Lefebvre, a spokesperson with British Columbia’s recycling agency, Recycle BC.

Instead of trying to eliminate all plastic, which is unrealistic, Lefebvre says “the real question is: are we using the right plastics? Are companies making sure that they are reducing the amount of plastic that they use as much as possible?”

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To that effect, sustainability expert Bud Fraser says what would make a big difference is putting more of the onus onto companies who generate plastic in the first place, instead of just on consumers and cities who have to clean it up after the fact.

The recycling system is set up in such a way that manufacturers put out a product — say, a standup plastic pouch for holding rice — and then it’s up to the cities and recycling agencies to figure out how to recycle it.

This system, Fraser says, needs to be flipped.

“In my mind, many of the manufacturers … have not really taken the approach of saying, ‘Well, let’s ensure that this product is recyclable before we put it onto the market.’ It’s more the other way around: put the product on the market and then everyone has to scramble to try to figure out how to recycle it.”