Reducing Plastic Pollution with Bioplastics, with Raegan Kelly

Pile of mainly plastic cups with other trash

Image: Bioplastic products, such as compostable cups, can reduce the size of landfills and drastically decrease the years needed for biodegradation. Image by: CC BY-NC 2.0

Script by:  YuCian Liu  |  Audio by: Keya Pardasani  |  Blurb by: Ashley Carter

Decreasing society’s reliance on single-use plastics

The use of plastic has major environmental, social, and health consequences. Across the globe, one million plastic bottles are purchased every minute, with over half of the plastic produced worldwide being thrown away after one use. Upon disposal, plastics are often left in landfills where they can break down into smaller microplastic particles, thereby acting as carriers of environmental toxins that threaten human health. More than 10 million tons of plastic waste has been dumped into the oceans alone. Currently, humans produce over 350 million metric tons of waste every year. This is projected to triple by 2060 to a shocking one billion metric tons if there are no policy changes to the current levels of plastic consumption. Plastic pollution is not only a human health issue, but a humanitarian crisis that poses major threats to all facets of society. 

The vast majority of plastic products utilized today are produced from crude oil and natural gas. By way of a refining process, crude oil is then transformed into a variety of petroleum-based products, like plastic cups. Petroleum-based plastic cups are recycled at a rate of only 5% per year and can take centuries to degrade, thereby exacerbating the large quantities of waste already on Earth. Petroleum-based plastics are largely associated with a slew of harmful environmental effects, such as the release of greenhouse gas emissions, continual persistence in marine and terrestrial ecosystems, and harmful pollution. Further, petrochemicals are also threatening human health, as recent research reveals that such exposure may be tied to the increasing prevalence of cancer, asthma, autism, allergies, and birth defects. 

Recently, environmentalists have been calling for decreasing humans’ reliance on plastic-based products altogether, instead turning to compostable or reusable products. Many advocate for the use of stainless steel cups, glass, wood, bamboo, pottery, or other ceramics as opposed to conventional plastic materials. Bioplastics, a type of plastic made from natural resources like vegetable oils and starches, are a promising alternative as they are functionally similar to traditional plastic products but are more environmentally friendly. Better for All, a plant-based compostable cup start-up, is seeking to transform society’s current dependence on environmentally degrading single-use plastic by spearheading the switch to bioplastic products.

How are Better for All cups different?

Better for All cups are particularly unique as they are created from P-Hydroxy-Benzota Hydroxylase or PHBH, which is a type of biopolymer from the PHA family that is produced from living fermented microorganisms. Therefore, not only are the cups biodegradable, but they are produced from naturally living organisms and can degrade in any type of living matter. These compostable cups have no additives and are certified non-toxic, free of phthalates, bisphenols, PFAs, and dioxins which are commonly found in traditional plastic cutlery.

The PHBH used by Better for All is created through a fermentation process that strains soil microorganisms, heats them at high temperatures, and allows them to metabolize into larger building blocks, forming the final product that is currently available for purchase. According to  Better for All, this allows their cups to be compostable in both home compost bins and large-scale landfill environments. 

Compostable cups: a groundbreaking solution? 

Compostable cups provide hope for the future. Although consumer behavior may not change, the products utilized by consumers can become more sustainable. Companies like Better for All hope to combat the continual reliance on plastic products by creating a compostable cup that not only mimics the appearance of traditional plastic cups, but can be used in exactly the same way. The only difference is that compostable cups, like those offered by Better for All, are to be thrown into green compost bins, rather than blue recycling bins.

One of the greatest advantages of bioplastics is their composting ability. Unlike plastic products, which may take centuries to degrade (or not degrade at all), bioplastic products can degrade in less than six months. As such, bioplastics can greatly reduce the size of growing landfills, which accelerate climate change. Researchers also point out that with potentially limited quantities of oil into the future, plastic prices may begin to fluctuate, altering the market for plastic cutlery.  

Controversy surrounding bioplastic

Although bioplastics are promising, there are some concerns and controversy.  First, during the composting process, biodegradable plastics can release methane gas, a harmful greenhouse gas byproduct. Additionally, bioplastics are produced from the cultivation of organic materials, like corn and maize, which can then divert land from food production to plastic production. It is estimated that by 2027 three million hectares of land, around 0.058% of total global agricultural land mass, will be dedicated towards bioplastic production. As demand for bioplastics is heightened, the land mass needed to produce the materials for production will also largely increase which can accelerate deforestation and land use degradation. 

Although bioplastics break down faster than conventional plastic material, this does not mean that mammals and marine life may not accidentally consume such products in the process of decomposition, which can negatively harm their health. Further, many bioplastic products are still thrown into recycling bins because consumers are often not aware that they can be composted, which defeats the purpose. Regardless of the type of plastic being produced, individuals will still continue to consume in vast quantities, which has environmentally harmful consequences no matter the type of product.  

Better for All’s perspective into the future

Although a world without any plastic cutlery is the most ideal, it is not always practical. Large sporting events, festivals, and social venues are heavily dependent on single-use cups for food and drink offered to the attendees. Better for All specifically targets large venues like these, currently offering their cups at USC football and basketball games, with hopes to expand to Live Nation events and eventually your local grocer. 

With time, Better for All believes that with the increased efficiency of supply chains and increased production, the cost of their cups will begin to decrease. The startup hopes to reduce human exposure to plastic toxins and change individuals’ habits on a daily basis by advocating for a decreased reliance on fossil fuels, holding petroleum-based products accountable, and promoting organic composting around the world. 

Who is Raegan Kelly?

Raegan Kelly is the product lead and co-founder of Better for All, spearheading the movement to switch to home compostable and reusable PHBH cups as opposed to traditional single-use plastics. She has a Master’s of Fine Arts degree from the California Institute of Arts and a Bachelor’s degree from University of California, Berkeley.

Further reading

Better for All

Royer et al., Production of methane and ethylene from plastic in the environment (PLoS One, 2018).

Lee et al., Health Effects of Microplastic Exposures (Yonsei Med J., 2023).

Statista, Plastic Waste Worldwide

United Nations Environment Program, Plastic Pollution


Transcript

Ethan: I’m Ethan Elkind, and you’re listening to Climate Break. Climate solutions in a hurry. Today’s proposal: making cups out of compostable plastic, in order to reduce plastic waste. We spoke to Raegan Kelly, co-founder of the compostable plastic cups company Better For All, about how traditional plastic comes from fossil fuels, which cause pollution and climate change. 

Ms. Kelly: Natural gas is cracked into the building blocks of petroleum plastics. So, all of that is highly toxic for local communities, but also releases quite a bit of carbon into the atmosphere. And then when petroleum plastics are disposed of, they’re really difficult to recycle. And we still only recycle about 9% of all plastic that we produce.

Ethan: To wean society off of petroleum-based plastic, Kelly and her team make cups using a new plant-based plastic. She says it is equally sturdy and flexible as fossil fuel-based cups, but it is completely compostable, which reduces both emissions and landfill needs. 

Ms. Kelly: I could see really robust reuse systems with lightweight materials that if they do break, they break down with no toxins releasing into the atmosphere, decompose in 10 weeks in a commercial composter, six months at home, immediately in an anaerobic composting facility. 

Ethan: To encourage the use of these types of sustainable materials, Kelly believes governments should stop supporting fossil fuel producers.

Ms. Kelly: We need to stop giving a big giant coupon to fossil fuel that they can then convert into lower prices, and dump a bunch of petroleum plastic resins on the market that then we new materials people have to compete with.

Ethan: To learn more about plant-based plastic production, visit climatebreak.org.

Reducing Plastic Pollution with Bioplastics, with Raegan Kelly