Plants vs. plastic in food service and packaging

Innovative, plant-based materials are a proven Solid Waste Management (SWM) strategy. The sustainable alternatives disintegrate rather than accumulate in landfills. They can be composted rather than hauled for disposal. Plant-based materials won’t be seen on beaches or in the ocean where, by 2050, there could be more plastic than fish.[1]

These six plants have been widely deployed as sustainable replacements for plastic:

Bamboo

Bamboo cutlery

Quick-growing bamboo is a renewable resource. The plants do not die after harvesting. Even the harvested materials can help the next generation of plants to grow as discarded bamboo utensils add nutrients to the soil.

Bamboo flatware is durable and washable, making it ideal for travel, camping, and lunches at work and school. Sturdy enough to handle most foods, bamboo can re-used many times before its eventual composting.[2]

Banana leaves

Supermarkets in Thailand and Vietnam wrap their produce in banana leaves. This replaces all except the small amount of plastic required to adhere to a label. In some places, meats are also wrapped in a banana leaf and secured with a flexible cutting of bamboo.[3]

Coconut

Discarded coconut husks mixed with organic adhesive are molded into cartons, protecting many foods. The strong, cushioning materials will cradle eggs without breaking and produce without bruising in transit from farm to warehouse to store. When it’s time to dispose of the coconut fiber capsules, they are fully biodegradable.[4]

Cornstarch

“Paper, plastic, or cornstarch?”

You may not have heard that question at your local grocery, but in China, plastic grocery bags are illegal. A major retailer there, Alibaba.com, and their American competitor, Amazon.com, both offer cornstarch bags.

Cornstarch has significant potential to replace Styrofoam takeout containers. The durable, petroleum-free, containers made from cornstarch resin can be refrigerated and frozen.

Mushrooms

Mushroom packaging

An international retailer of furniture and household items, IKEA, is replacing significant quantities of polystyrene with sustainable, mushroom-based packaging. Other retailers, including Dell Computers, have used biodegradable packing components to replace EPE-polyethylene foam for cushioning and bracing.

Most plastics require 500 years or more to decompose. In soil, mushroom-based packaging can biodegrade within weeks.[5]

Sugar cane

Bagasse, the pulp material remaining after extracting sugar cane juice, is the source of many products normally made from polystyrene or other plastics.[6] Alibaba.com offers 943 sugar cane packaging products. One manufacturer, Bulldog Skincare for Men, packages face washes, scrubs, and moisturizers in sugar cane tubes.

More and more plant-based materials are replacing plastics. Please leave a note on the Contact page to share others that you’ve seen. With your permission, your “plants vs. plastics” discoveries will be published in updates or additional articles this summer. Thank you!

Alexa Stone
LEED AP, Sustainable Facility Professional, Envision Sustainability Professional - - Alexa has more than 25 years of experience in sustainable and Smart Cities development. Her strategic planning work has served local, state, and federal government, higher education, and private industry. Alexa founded ecoPreserve in 2009 as a team of 3 and has grown the company to over a dozen of the brightest sustainability and project management professionals in the industry.
Alexa Stone

@ecopreserve

Helping organizations improve operations, reduce costs and achieve sustainability through data driven, efficiency focused, planning, reporting & certification.
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