Plastic production began less than 100 years ago but grew rapidly due to its malleability and other convenient properties. The concerning environmental impact from petroleum-derived plastics has prompted a shift away from that traditional feedstock.
Toy companies, for example, are reducing their environmental footprint by switching from traditional plastics to sugarcane bioplastics. After marketing kits featuring some bioplastic pieces in 2018, Lego just unveiled its first kit containing polyethylene pieces made from sugarcane. The 3,036-piece kit retails for about $200 and is a milestone in the company’s goal to only produce sustainable bricks by 2030. Currently, all Lego vegetation pieces are made from plant-based plastic.
Another toy manufacturer, Mattel, is pushing for more sustainable plastic by 2030. The parent company behind Barbie, Fisher-Price, Hot Wheels, and more will use sugarcane-based plastic to help reach this goal, per Fast Company.
Skeptics argue that while the sustainable bioplastics used by Lego and Mattel are an important step for plastic production purposes, complications will still arise at the end of the products’ lifecycles if they do not biodegrade quickly.
According to multiple sources, just 20 percent of all plastic was disposed via recycling in 2015. Furthermore, a 2018 study found that just 9 percent of all plastic produced has been recycled, with most piling up in landfills or incinerated. Without question, proper disposal is an issue consumers need to face head on.
Another issue, specific to the sustainability of sugarcane polyethene, is that ramping up sugarcane production in Brazil could displace local farmers and increase deforestation.
Additionally, while sugarcane captures CO2 from the air at a significant rate while growing, greenhouse gasses are emitted during mechanical harvests, at processing mills, and during field burns and blanketed field periods, techniques commonly used by farmers, per Australian Journal of Agricultural Research.
However, growing support for GM sugarcane, which can lead to greater yield with equal or less inputs, may offer a partial solution to concerns over sustainability. Currently, in Brazil, the world’s largest sugarcane producer, no chemical fertilizers are used in production.
Global plastic production & eventual fate of products
Source: Science Advances 2017
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