Making Disposable Products More Sustainable

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With alternatives to single-use plastic products being put into circulation more and more, some consumers may wonder whether these different materials used to make the product more sustainable are also making the product less effective. The most obvious example of this is the introduction of the paper straw. While a paper straw may be more easily recycled, it also softens when introduced into liquid, a rather undesirable characteristic of a straw material. 

Common Alternatives to Single-Use Plastic

Paper

Paper is a common material in creating alternatives to single-use plastic, as it is easily decomposable and readily available. Paper is used as an alternative for plastic shopping bags and plastic straws, and in both settings, they have been criticized for being easily breakable and less effective. Paper bags often have thin straps that cannot support the weight of common grocery store items, and have a tendency to break. Due to this weakness in construction, paper bags are also more difficult to reuse than plastic bags. Plastic shopping bags are sometimes reused in various settings if they are undamaged, due to their resilient properties. A replacement for plastic as a material needs to have that resilience, as well as a low price point.

Bamboo

Straws and utensils have often been made from bamboo, which is much more rigid and less susceptible to the softening effect that water has on paper. Bamboo is an uncommon replacement for plastic, making it more expensive for a company to try.

Metal

An effective replacement for plastic products such as disposable straws or disposable cutlery can be metal forms of these products. The primary downside to this option is that consumers have to carry around this reusable product for extended periods of time until they come across the opportunity to use it. This can mean that consumers can own metal straws or metal water bottles and still end up using plastic forms of these products if they forget to bring their metal alternatives. Despite this, using completely reusable forms of products can be an excellent way to reduce your carbon footprint.

Cloth

A common way to replace plastic shopping bags is the use of reusable bags made of cloth. This is an excellent replacement, as it provides a sturdy and reusable alternative to single-use plastic. Cloth bags are becoming commonly sold at checkouts in grocery stores, so even if consumers forget to bring their own bags, they can choose to buy one or a few bags as needed. 

Uncommon and Innovative Solutions

Some companies have turned to unusual solutions to try to improve sustainability. An example of this is the company Incredible Eats, which makes edible cutlery and straws. This is a creative way to have an alternative to plastic products that does not lead to landfill waste. This type of solution is uncommon and expensive, so it is unlikely to be implemented across the country.

Restrictions on Single-Use Plastics

The Government of Canada intends to prohibit the use of single-use plastic, including straws, plastic bags, single-use utensils, and others. This ban came into effect in December of 2022 and works to transition the country to more sustainable ways of creating these products so they can be more easily recycled. The Government also intends to prohibit the export of some plastics by 2025, which has similar goals of reducing our dependence on hard-to-recycle plastics and focusing our energy on finding other ways to make products.

The creation of these restrictions on the types of materials used to make certain common disposable products leads to a necessary shift toward paper and other materials to create these products. However (as many reading this may be well aware), plastic is a very effective material for the products it is used in. When other materials are used, this can make the product less effective at the very job it is meant to do. On top of this, products made with other materials still have an environmental impact. While paper products do decompose much more quickly than plastic products, companies add PFAS to paper products in order to make them water-repellent. PFAS can have a detrimental effect on the environment, taking a long time to break down. They can also be harmful to wildlife, humans, and the environment when they accumulate. A study on PFAS concentration in various types of straws found that various other materials used to create straws were also found to contain PFAS. This included glass and bamboo straws. 

Conclusions

Single-use plastics are being banned in many contexts in Canada. These bans motivate companies to find alternative materials for these products, leading to some products that are less effective at performing their function. With time and more product development, we will develop better materials or methods of creating these products.

References

Boisacq, P., De Keuster, M., Prinsen, E., Jeong, Y., Bervoets, L., Eens, M., Covaci, A., Willems, T., & Groffen, T. (2023). Assessment of poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in commercially available drinking straws using targeted and suspect screening approaches. Food Additives & Contaminants. Part a. Chemistry, Analysis, Control, Exposure & Risk Assessment, 40(9), 1230–1241. https://doi.org/10.1080/19440049.2023.2240908

Canada, E. a. C. C. (2022, June 20). Government of Canada delivers on commitment to ban harmful single-use plastics. Canada.ca. https://www.canada.ca/en/environment-climate-change/news/2022/06/government-of-canada-delivers-on-commitment-to-ban-harmful-single-use-plastics.html

Canada, E. a. C. C. (2022, December 19). Change is here: Canada’s ban on certain harmful single-use plastics starts to take effect this month. Canada.ca. https://www.canada.ca/en/environment-climate-change/news/2022/12/change-is-here-canadas-ban-on-certain-harmful-single-use-plastics-starts-to-take-effect-this-month.html

Spoons you can Eat. (n.d.). incrEDIBLE Eats Inc. https://incredibleeats.com/

About Post Author

Aliyah Knetsch

Aliyah is a fourth year BSc Psychology student at the University of Waterloo, and she is a Research Assistant with EnvironFocus.
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