Are there viable solutions to plastic pollution?

From international agreements to polymer-eating microbes, addressing plastic waste requires many solutions

Our reliance on plastic has so many problems: plastic is straight-up made from fossil fuels, it almost always turns into elusive and potentially harmful microplastics, the recycling system is deeply flawed, and the flow of more cheap, single-use plastics seems impossible to stop. In reality, though, our plastic addiction is only a few decades old. There are, however, solutions to plastic pollution, both newfangled and old-fashioned, that we can curb our use.

New technologies pop up every day: creating fossil-free plastic alternatives, uncovering teeny tiny creatures that like to munch on plastic, detecting and removing waste from the natural environment, and more. But the easiest way to help stop the flood of planet-killing plastics is to choose not to use them—and to advocate for legislation that puts the onus on plastic producers to pay for the transition. 

What are bioplastics?

Fossil fuels—which are the “feedstock” for the vast majority of plastic—are basically the remnants of really old, dead plants and animals. Bioplastic, in some ways, is saying “could we do plastic with newer dead stuff?” Bioplastic (also sometimes called bio-based polymers) are plastics made with crops like corn, food waste, and seaweed. By switching feedstocks from the most-polluting stuff on the planet to renewable resources, using bioplastics for our packaging and electronics sounds like a pretty good deal. Even moreso if these materials can biodegrade in an environmentally responsible way.

Of course, it’s more complicated than that. These bio-based alternatives break down easier than their fossil cousins, so they still pose the risk of releasing microplastics into the environment. The products also tend to be less hardy than what they replace, which is great for biodegradation but not for long-term storage of our stuff. Additionally, the way we get feedstocks for bioplastics really matters: In a perfect world, we’d just use the waste that ends up in a landfill, or plants like certain seaweeds that are invasive and harmful to local ecosystems.1 But when we use crops like sugar and corn, we add to the massive carbon footprint of today’s agricultural system, which isn’t a climate-friendly option at all. 

Bioplastics also pose a unique risk of greenwashing. Sometimes mislabelling can confuse consumers into thinking certain products are recyclable, compostable, or degrade safely in landfills. In actuality, though, many bio-based products aren’t recyclable with usual systems, can’t be composted, and even emit powerful methane in landfill settings.

Go deeper about bioplastics

FAQ: Are bioplastics common worldwide? 

Currently, bio-based polymers (or bioplastics) make up less than 1% of the plastics produced annually worldwide.

Are there new or better ways to dispose of plastic?

The way we get rid of plastic, even in the most successful situations, is pretty fraught. The tiny percentage of plastic that makes it to recycling still leaves a trail of problems, and the rest either sits in landfills or the environment—or literally goes up in flames and spews harmful gasses into the atmosphere. But, scientists are working on better ways to get rid of it. 

Some ideas include larvae, mushrooms, and microbes that gladly munch up plastic waste. Of course, all of these organisms (from wax worms to oyster mushrooms) come with a crucial caveat: They are still new, so we don’t know exactly how useful they can be, nor do we know if they could cause potential harm by spewing microplastics or interfering with natural ecosystems. Nevertheless, many scientists are hopeful that we could use them in the future to better our troubled plastic waste system.

There’s also the possibility of using chemical recycling to turn pretty much any kind of plastic into a multitude of products–including turning it back into fuel. Some projects have started using waste plastic as a base for roads, but this process comes with unknown and potentially troubling microplastic side effects

Go deeper about emerging plastic disposal methods

FAQ: When was the first plastic-eating fungus discovered?

Yale University scientists found that multiple species of fungi from the Pestalotiopsis genus turn polyurethane plastic into organic matter within lab environments in 2011.

How can we physically remove plastic waste?

Fighting off future plastics is crucial for eliminating plastic pollution, but what does that mean for the 11 million tons of plastic that gets dumped into the ocean annually?2 Fortunately, a handful of companies and organizations have their eye on the dilemma–the most famous of which is the Ocean Cleanup. Their program uses boats as tender in rivers and in the open ocean, as well as stationary barriers and barricades, to capture the waste plastic causing harm to marine environments all over the world. Other companies have similar projects: take Azure Fighter, an unmanned electric plastic-cleaning boat, or Baltimore’s beloved trash interceptor Mr. Trash Wheel. While these projects can be effective at getting plastic out of the literal ocean, there have been questions from experts for years on the issues of environmental disruption and resource use. 

However, utilizing more accurate data, like NASA’s microplastic concentration-detecting satellites, could make it easier to find hotspots that could benefit from cleanups. The easiest and least controversial way to clean up plastic from our environment, however, is getting out ourselves and doing it. So if you’re worked up and ready to take action, look up beach or park waste cleanups in your neighborhood.

Go deeper about plastic removal methods & challenges

FAQ: How much plastic is in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?

There are 79,000 metric tons of ocean plastic floating in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, made up of 1.8 trillion individual pieces of plastic.

How can we use less plastic?

Consumer action works: If we use less plastic, there will be less of an economic incentive to keep producing mounds of it. So tackle the challenge of saying farewell to single-use plastics like bottles, bags, beauty products, packaging, and more. It can be as simple as swapping out a flimsy single-use bottle for a nice reusable metal or glass one and bringing your own containers to carry school lunch. To go even deeper, you can check out the myriad of zero-waste stores popping up all over the world to get supplies you need without the plastic that you don’t. Go second-hand shopping for essentials, and only buy the things you need

Using less plastic can also keep you from consuming microplastics. To get this benefit, really think about where your food is coming from and how it’s packaged. Skip disposable tea bags, avoid processed foods packaged in plastic (and certainly don’t put them in the microwave), or even try your hand at growing your own veggies. 

Go deeper about reducing plastic use & waste

FAQ: Just how bad is our single-use plastic waste problem?

One million plastic bottles are purchased every minute. Just think of what it could mean for the waste stream if we just stopped.

  1. Processing and characterization of bioplastics from the invasive seaweed Rugulopteryx okamurae, Polymers, Jan. 2022 ↩︎
  2. From pollution to solution, United Nations Environment Programme ↩︎