Alternative Plastics

Often, we hear alternative plastics proposed as the solution to our worldwide plastic problem. We hear terms like "compostable", "biodegradable", and "bio-based plastics". But what does these terms actually mean?

There is no easy answer to that question, because there are not common legal or social definitions of any of these terms. In fact, plastics producers often take advantage of that lack of shared definition to pitch their products to consumers and companies.

Even when considering plastics that are guaranteed compostable under US ASTM guidelines or other government regulations, several concerns remain:

  • Compostable plastics require specific conditions under which their break down, facilities which are expensive to build on the scale needed to address the growing amount of plastic pollution being produced.
  • Most communities do not have access to these industrial facilities which could potentially compost these plastics.
  • Compostable plastics do not behave any differently in the marine environment, landfill, or street than other plastics. This means they are just as much of a nuisance when they are not composted than other plastics.
  • Changing the material used to make plastic (e.g. using potatoes or corn instead of oil products) does not reduce the demand for the chemicals (e.g. phthalates and other endocrine disrupting compounds) which turn that material into plastics. Those chemicals are still toxic contaminants as they are being processed, which can also still leach into food packaged in them.
  • Composting plastic does not solve the growing global problem of single-use packaging. In fact, it makes it worse by creating a "solution myth" - much like recycling - behind which companies and people can defend their destructive consumption rather than embracing sustainability.


Rather than focusing on finding new materials from which to make indestructible plastic, we should be focusing on preventing the problem of single-use in the first place. To solve the plastic pollution crisis, we should stop making and stop using single-use plastic.