There’s a range of alternatives to plastic across several applications and uses.
In the guide below, we list what some of the alternative materials and products might be for these different uses.
Alternative Materials To Plastic
Alternative materials to plastic can be highly dependent on the application.
The material needs to have practical traits for the end use.
Some examples of alternative materials to plastic might include:
We’ve previously discussed the sustainability of wood compared to plastic
The sustainability of wood can be favorable at the production stage in some instances, especially if the wood is pre or post consumer wood, or if it’s grown at certified sustainable plantations
One example of using wood over plastic might be for construction materials.
Another example of using wood over plastic is for furniture.
One of the benefits of wood for furniture might be that there may not be as much micro plastic in the indoor air to inhale, which accuweather.com outlines may be the case with plastic furniture.
We’ve previously discussed the sustainability of metals in general compared to plastic
We’ve also specifically looked at the sustainability of aluminum compared to plastic, and stainless steel compared to plastic
Metals may use more energy and have a greater carbon footprint during production, but metals tend to have a high recycling rate comparative to plastic across most countries
We’ve previously discussed the sustainability of glass compared to plastic
Glass may rate worse than plastic across several sustainability indicators, but better across others
How glass is made and used is a big variable with how sustainable glass can be – recycled glass products that are re-used can be reasonably sustainable
Having said that, glass comes from arguably more abundant source materials than plastic, regardless of recycling and re-use
Glass can commonly be used for jars, containers and bottles (with a plastic seal, plastic lid, or metal bottle top) over plastic jars, containers and bottles.
We’ve previously discussed the sustainability of paper compared to plastic
Paper mills aren’t always environmentally friendly at the production stage, however, paper can be recycled at a relatively high rate, and tends not to have the pollution problems that plastic might not have
Paper can be used for some bags, along with some types of packaging and wraps, instead of plastic
Traditional plastics are derived from fossil fuel based feedstock, such as petroleum feedstock.
Bioplastics are derived from renewable bio mass sources such as vegetable fats and oils (just as one example).
Bioplastics aren’t perfect and do have drawbacks though.
[Bioplastics … ] have limited applications commercially, and they aren’t all biodegradable or better than fossil fuel derived plastics in some ways (wikipedia.org). They also require specific conditions to break down
– PDK Plastic
PDK plastic (short for Poly(diketoenamine)) is a plastic that is still in development this point, and is being developed to be remade/reused without having to go to landfill.
The intention of this plastic is to use it for textiles, foams, and even 3D printing (qualitylogoproducts.com).
– No Material/Zero Waste
People often think they always have to replace plastic with another material.
In some instances, this may be the case.
But, in other instances, if it’s for a non essential product for example, going zero waste or re-using an existing product could be an option.
A few examples of this might include:
– Drinking a drink without a plastic straw
– Using a re-usuable shopping bag instead of a new disposable plastic bag
– Buying bottles or cans that come in cardboard holder packaging instead of plastic holder packaging
Alternatives To Plastic Fibres
– Natural Fibres
Fibres can be used for a range of things, such as textiles and clothing/fashion.
Some of the specific natural fibres that can be an alternatives to plastic based fibres can include organic cotton, hemp, linen/flax, jute, and other fibres.
These natural fibres can be more sustainable in various ways, such as being grown from renewable sources, and being able to decompose without releasing microplastics.
Alternatives To Plastic Bags
We’ve previously compared plastic bags to cotton, organic cotton, paper and composite bags (such as jute composite bags for example).
In some instances, plastic bags can rate higher in sustainability.
But, in other instances for re-usuable bags, other bag materials can be more sustainable the more they are re-used, and across specific indicators.
Bags can be used for a range of things, with shopping being a common use.
Alternatives To Plastic Packaging
We’ve previously written about what sustainable packaging is, and the potential pros and cons of sustainable packaging.
As just a few examples of alternatives to plastic for different types of packaging:
– Wrap Packaging
Instead of using plastic wrap for different types of food, paper wrap or bees wax wrap can be used.
A natural form of food wrapping would also be the food’s own external skin – such as the peel of a banana. Bananas can be bought in bunches without a plastic bag.
– Tray Packaging
Recycled cardboard trays are replacing plastic trays in some supermarkets for some foods and produce.
– Transport & Freight Packaging
Instead of plastic transport and freight packaging, paper bags, with plant based bag liners and tin ties can be used to transport and deliver goods.
One example of this is thesourcebulkfoods.com.au: “Products for delivery are packed in biodegradable and compostable unbleached Eco paper bags made from sustainably sourced materials. The bags are lined with a 100% plant based film (PLA) which is made from natural starch derived from plants such as corn and sugar cane. … [the] product bags have a tin-tie close, so no sticky tape is needed to seal the bags. The bags can be re-used for lunch boxes or storage before final compost. To compost the bags remove the tin tie first. You can reuse the tin-tie in the kitchen.”
– No Packaging
We mentioned this above in the material section, but, consumers can opt to buy some products without packaging.
Bags can be re-used for food shopping, and consumers can also shop at zero waste stores that minimise or eliminate packaging.
Alternatives To Plastic Bottles
We’ve previously written about the sustainability of different materials of water bottles
Metal water bottles and glass water bottles are common alternatives to plastic
Stainless steel drink bottles of a certain grade, and that are re-used a certain amount of times and then recycled, could be more sustainable in several ways than single use disposable plastic water bottles
Alternatives To Plastic Wrap
We outlined plastic wrap alternatives in the packaging section above
Paper, bees wax food wrap, and other wraps are some of the options
Alternatives To Plastic Bin Bags & Bin Liners
A few alternatives (that may be used in conjunction with each other) to plastic bin liners and plastic bin bags are:
Set up a compost bin for compostable and organic waste
Consider using paper as a bin liners for dry waste
Use no bin liner, individually wrap wet waste in paper, and empty dry waste from bin directly into kerbside collection bin
Use a fully biodegradable and compostable bin liner made from bioplastic or another material that can break down in certain conditions
Some people also choose to start changing the things they buy so that they buy more compostable and recyclable items.
This may decrease their reliance on plastic bin liners and general waste.
Alternatives To Plastic Cups
Metal cups, ceramic cups, and glass cups are a few of the alternatives to plastic cups.
These types of cups are often reusable.
Alternatives To Plastic Straws
We’ve previously written about the sustainability of different materials of straws
Alternatives to plastic straws may include metal straws, paper straws, bamboo straws, glass straws, silicone straws, and other reusable straws
Some types of metal straws when re-used many times and then recycled may be more sustainable than single use plastic straws in some instances
Alternatives To Plastic Cutlery
Metal cutlery is a common alternative to plastic cutlery.
Metal cutlery can be washed and re-used.
Wood or bamboo cutlery are also options.
Alternatives To Plastic Sandwich Bags
Bees wax food wrap is a an alternative to plastic sandwich bags.
But also, some people use washable and re-usable glass or metal food containers with a sealable plastic cover/lid.
The more these products are re-used, the better their sustainability footprint might be.
What Might Be Some Of The Most Sustainable Alternatives To Plastic?
It really does depend on the material and product, but some of the general sustainable alternatives might be:
– Zero waste, or zero new materials being used is usually the best option (such as zero packaging, or minimal packaging)
– Using products that are reusable, or, re-using products for secondary uses after they reach the end of their regular usage stage
– Using products that come from renewable materials (or that are made from recycled materials that result in a net positive sustainability impact), and that can biodegrade or decompose in a reasonably sustainable way, and be recycled again after use
Alternatives To Plastic May Have Tradeoffs
It’s worth noting that plastic alternatives will have tradeoffs.
Some tradeoffs may be related to sustainability, and some may be related to practical and traits based tradeoffs, amongst other tradeoffs like feasibility.
There’s no use using a plastic alternative if it’s going to make something unsafe (especially with food or in the medical/health field), perform poorly, or lead to huge inefficiency (like for example when it comes to waste management, recycling, the use of virgin materials vs trying to make use existing materials, and so on).
In some instances too, there may just not be a suitable plastic alternative for some applications and activities.
An assessment of the lifecycle, performance and other features and impact of the material or product needs to be done (from sourcing and production, all the way through to end of use and waste management/re-use).
Understanding What Biodegradable, Eco Friendly, & Sustainable Can Mean When Using Plastic Alternatives
Not all alternatives to plastic are biodegradable, or completely eco friendly or sustainable.
Some things to be aware of with biodegradable, eco friendly and sustainable alternatives to plastic might be:
Biodegradable labels can mean different things.
If something is labelled as biodegradable, you want to look at what it is made of, and look at what conditions it is biodegradable under.
The same applies to compostable.
Commercial landfill conditions might not match the conditions an item is designed to be biodegradable under.
– Eco Friendly
Can mean anything.
To get a real gauge if something is eco friendly, a full lifecycle assessment needs to be carried out.
Just as one example, plastic is actually more eco friendly in some ways at some stages of the product or material life cycle than materials like glass or metal.
One example of this is the weight of plastic (which is very light) and how flexible and durable it is (which allows more of it to be packed onto transport vehicles) – this can lead to less fuel being used, more product being transported with the same vehicle, less greenhouse gas emissions, less energy and resources used in production, and so on.
So, you really have to dig down and get detailed and specific for a true eco friendly assessment.
For example, sustainable can measure the use of energy, water, land, emissions, raw materials, or something else like the way the management of waste