Researchers warn: “sustainable” plastics might not be the solution

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With hundreds of millions of tons of plastic produced every year, finding alternatives is crucial.

However, researchers Sara Gonella and Vincent de Gooyert from Radboud University caution that “sustainable plastics” are not the silver bullet they appear to be.

Their findings, published in Environmental Research Letters, reveal that these plastics may not be as eco-friendly as they seem.

The rising popularity of plastic poses a significant environmental challenge.

Over the past few years, efforts have been made to address this, including recycling technologies, biodegradable plastics, and attempts to change consumer behavior with plastic taxes. These efforts contribute to the concept of “sustainable plastics.”

De Gooyert and Gonella were intrigued by this concept and conducted a comprehensive study on the true sustainability of interventions in the plastics system.

“Calling something sustainable gives the impression that it benefits the environment,” says Gonella. ”

However, our study shows that this is only true in a narrow context. The end product might be more sustainable in some ways, but there can still be many negative impacts, especially when considering social and economic factors.”

One example is the push to switch from oil-based plastics to biomass-based plastics. “Using biomass is still energy-intensive and relies on fossil fuels,” explains De Gooyert.

“Additionally, increased demand for biomass could lead to overuse of land in low-income countries, negatively affecting food production and quality.”

In many cases, there is simply no alternative to plastic available. “For essential applications, like medical gear and solar panels, the most sustainable options are still plastic-based,” says De Gooyert.

The researchers also warn that labeling plastics as sustainable could lead to careless usage. “If people believe biodegradable or bio-based plastics are environmentally sound, they might be less motivated to reduce plastic use overall,” says Gonella.

“Additionally, not all consumers know that biodegradable plastics may not be bio-based, leading to mistakes in waste separation.”

Their findings serve as a warning to the United Nations, which is working on a treaty to address plastic pollution. “A treaty to end plastic pollution is expected soon, but many UN members consider ‘alternative plastics’ as a viable solution,” says Gonella.

“Without a clear definition of what makes plastics sustainable, the UN might fall into the same trap as others.”

In conclusion, De Gooyert emphasizes that as long as all aspects of sustainability are not considered, we should be cautious about relying on so-called “sustainable” plastics.