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Opinion: By dwelling on the downsides of bioplastics, we’re hobbling efforts to make them part of the solution

Bio-based plastics may not be perfect, but they’re better for the environment than those made from fossil fuels — and getting better every day.
Intro imagePhotos © iStockphoto.com/smartboy10

Panacea was a goddess of Greek mythology. The daughter of Hepius, the Greek god of medicine, she is best known for bearing a magic potion that can cure any and every disease. In the clickbait era, we might think of Panacea as that “one simple trick” that completely changes everything. Indeed, we use her name today — uncapitalized — to refer, per Merriam-Webster, to “a remedy for all ills or difficultiesCURE-ALL.”

But, of course in reality, there are no panaceas. No cure-alls. That’s as true in medicine as it is in public policy. So, when we think about major global problems like the plastic waste crisis, as writer Anja Krieger recently did at Ensia, it’s essential that we remember that every proposed solution is going to bring its own challenges.

Unfortunately, for many journalists and activists covering the issue, the temptation to succumb to reflexive pessimism is simply too much. That type of thinking lends itself to seeing only the challenges and none of the benefits presented by innovations with the potential to propel us beyond an economy built around environmentally harmful plastics.

My organization, the Plant Based Products Council (PBPC), runs into this pessimism all the time. We’re a solutions-oriented group of producers, manufacturers and consumer brands who are innovating bioplastics and other plant-based materials as part of a holistic approach to moving beyond environmentally problematic legacy products. But coverage of these next-generation materials regularly focuses on the few things they still can’t do; on the various barriers to their widespread adoption and integration into the global economy; on the fact that they are not, unfortunately, panaceas.

And sometimes the coverage goes beyond pessimism, veering into misplaced hostility.

Let me give you an example. A recent article from Fast Company — with the pessimistic headline “Will compostable packaging ever be able to solve our waste problem?” — seems to have aimed to provide an overview of the current state of our industry’s efforts to move beyond landfills and expand access to compostable, more environmentally responsible materials, especially in food service packaging.

But in the course of doing so, the author dwelled disproportionately on the obstacles we’re facing, and even went so far as to quote a source calling the plant-based polylactic acid (PLA) drinking straws an example of “greenwashing” because they require certain conditions to degrade most effectively.

The concept of greenwashing implies a kind of deceit or bad faith in presenting bio-based products as a more environmentally responsible alternative to legacy plastic straws. But PLA straws are derived from plants that absorb carbon from the atmosphere, rather than fossil fuels, and can be composted rather than landfilled. In our view, our industry has never been less than forthright about both the promises of these new technologies, and the challenges they currently face.

The reality is that there is currently limited capacity in our cities and municipalities for collecting and composting materials like PLA, as well as a lack of agreed-upon standards for how to identify and label compostable materials so consumers know how to properly dispose of them. The same article does a good job of pointing out these two facts.

But neither negates the benefits of PLA, or makes legacy materials more preferable, or gives us an excuse to throw our hands up and admit defeat.

Rather, they call on us to advance composting activity and boost investment in the relevant infrastructure. That’s why the PBPC advocates for the establishment of a well-funded national infrastructure program to award grants for composting infrastructure development.

Journalism and activism that aims to make a difference on these issues should forget panaceas, acknowledge the strides that have already been made and ask, “What’s next? How can we make these challenges into opportunities to be taken advantage of?”

And perhaps most importantly, they should acknowledge the proverbial elephant in the room: the legacy plastics industry, which has made it absolutely clear that it intends to fight efforts to phase out their products.

Our industry understands better than most that disruption of the status quo is no small feat. It can’t be done without soberly acknowledging the scale and difficulty of the task. But it certainly can’t be done by focusing on those difficulties to the exclusion of everything else.

The views expressed here are those of the authors and not necessarily of Ensia. We present ​them to further discussion around important topics. ​We encourage you to respond with a comment below following our commenting guidelines, which can be found on this page. ​In addition, you might consider​ ​submitting a Voices piece of your own. See Ensia’s Contact page  for submission guidelines.

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