The war on plastic has begun in earnest. With critics citing waste, the pollution caused during disposal, and the energy used to create and mould the compounds into the forms we know so well, new ways of tackling our addiction to plastic are being conceived.
France has taken the legal route – with the country's Government banning non-biodegradable disposable cups, plates knives and forks from 2020.
Here, we take a look at some of the alternatives to throw-away plastics, as well as other plastic-recycling innovations that may hit the front line of this key sustainability struggle.
The easiest way to minimise waste from picnicking and kids' parties is surely to eat the tools you've just, er, eaten with. Made from millet, rice and wheat, the dining innovation from an Indian inventor offers exactly this, and a number of different flavours are on offer. Possibly soon to be a big hit in France.
In what's becoming a bit of a theme, a US agriculture research team has created a packaging material made of milk proteins, which as well as offering you the opportunity to stuff it in your mouth, it also is said to preserve food better than plastic. There are drawbacks though – it'll be more expensive than plastic, plus involving cows – and their associated methane production – in packaging may not be a more sustainable option. Watch this space.
Still on the subject of eating, a group of fungi have been found to gorge on plastic. One type of mushroom can exist on an all-plastic diet, in fact. Is this the solution to plastic waste, and potential problems from a contaminated food chain? If it can be scaled up to a sufficient degree, there is huge potential here.
Two young scientists are in the process of commercialising their concept, bacteria which breaks down plastic quicker than methods currently on offer. It may take a few years before this innovation enters the waste recycling process, but again, it seems like nature might have the answer to human error.
A social enterprise called Conceptos Plasticos has come up with a way of creating stackable bricks from waste plastic and rubber, to create quickly-built, durable and – most importantly – extremely affordable housing for those who need it most.
'Silver houses' are popping up in Pakistan. These structures are made from thermally-sealed plastic waste, and according to the concept's creator, can also be used for structures like dams, swimming pools or even furniture. At the moment they're being suggested as an option where temporary accommodation is urgently needed, or for Pakistan's nomadic communities.
Converting waste plastics to fuels like petrol, kerosene and diesel has been the aim of the game for Australian PhD student Songpol Boonsawat – and it's brought a breakthrough. Emissions, of course, would still be a problem in the end though – but they are said to be lower than existing fuels, while 'closing the loop' in the plastic life cycle. It's said the process, if taken up widely, could potential reduce plastics going to landfill by 80 per cent.
Plastic bottles and air conditioning systems don't seem the most natural connection, but a very simple invention, using just bottles and a perforated board, may prove to the answer to lowering the temperature of scores of households off the electricity grid. The Eco Cooler concept, currently being used in Bangladesh, creates a natural cooling effect by warm air entering the large opening of the bottle and leaving through the thinner neck.
One way to stop plastic harming ecosystems is to stop it getting there at the first possible opportunity. Synthetic clothing materials shed lots of plastic microfibres when washed, and they often end up in waterways. However, a new microfibre catcher, modelled on sea anemones, has been invented to catch the rogue plastic in your machine. From there, it goes back to the manufacturer where it's dealt with. It's out next year in the States, so in the meantime, washing synthetics sparingly and looking out for natural materials is advised.
The main problem with 3D printing is it uses a lot of plastic. But it also poses a potential use for waste plastic, and Greek project The New Raw is among a wave of innovators making plastic bottles, cups and more into useful printing filament. More than that, though, it is raising awareness of plastic recycling on the island of Syros with initiatives like creating pet houses for stray cats and stools which compress waste plastic.