Plastic. A material incorporated in so many components of our lives that we don’t even notice it: our phone cases, our food packaging, our garbage bags. Yet, it poses one of the biggest threats to our planet.
The first plastic ever was created in 1869 and was made from cellulose. Then, the first fully synthetic plastic - meaning it isn’t derived from plants or animals, but from fossil fuels - as we know it today, was invented in 1907. The material is one of the most revolutionary inventions of our modern world. It has become critical to many different areas of society, like the development of computers or within the medical field. In fact, over 50% of the world’s plastic was created after 2000. But the drawbacks of the material weren’t as evident until many years later: it uses up finite resources and it cannot decompose.
What is plastic made of?
Most plastics are polymers derived from raw materials in nature, such as natural gas or oil. However, the process used to create plastic deformes the materials in such a way that no occurring organisms in nature can break them down effectively or at all. Thus, they remain un-composted for multiple hundreds of years.
Why is it an issue?
380 million tons of plastic are produced every year. Of that, more than 99% consists of fossil-fuel feedstocks. Once the synthetic material is produced, we cannot gain these finite natural resources back. They are trapped in the product for longer than a lifetime.
Second, plastic production and incineration are major contributors to climate change. Not only is fossil fuel extraction and refinement a very carbon-intensive process, but almost 90% of all plastic produced ends up in landfill and is often burned. This releases carbon dioxide, methane and various other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, thus, contributing to global warming. In fact, plastics alone are likely to consume over 10% of our Earth’s remaining carbon budget by 2050.
Lastly, plastic doesn't just waste resources and pollute the air, but it also contaminates nature and destroys ecosystems. Especially in oceans, the synthetic material poses a great threat for entanglement as well as ingestion for wildlife. According to the UN, by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish if we continue to produce it at our current rate.
But enough about the negatives. Let us now focus on the positives instead: What is currently being done to move away from the harmful material?
What is the government doing?
More than 60 countries worldwide have adopted some form of single-use plastic ban. A recent policy enacted in July 2021 is the single-use plastic ban in the EU that forces shifts to sustainable solutions. Policies are very important to maintain standards and to hold all facilities within a country responsible for their pollution. Yet, they can take a long time to implement and the right practices are not always promoted. This is why innovation is crucial to address any pollution issue.
What innovations are there?
A startup that actively addresses the single-use plastic ban in Europe is Wisefood. They produce cutlery, tableware, and to-go packaging made of entirely biodegradable materials. Their straws and spoons are even edible to ensure that they are 100% waste-free.
Our portfolio company Everdrop is also on a mission to steer away from the material: With their dissolvable cleaning product tabs, the company has already replaced over 4 million plastic bottles.
Lastly, another German business, Kleiderly, has found a way to recycle textile waste into a plastic alternative. This innovative approach opens up a whole range of opportunities for new products.
These are just some of many startups that have come up with new solutions to help tackle the threat of plastic production and pollution.
What can I do?
Small everyday habits, like buying products that aren’t packaged in plastic or using bar soap instead of body wash in a disposable container, can go a long way. There are even specific shops that provide all products without any type of unsustainable packaging, such as the OHNE supermarkets in Munich. It is crucial to reduce the overall amount of plastic bought instead of simply buying recyclable versions, since only about 10% of all plastic truly gets recycled. Your best bet is to avoid buying it to begin with.
We all can be more responsible with our plastic usage. On an individual level, I urge you all to rethink the amount of waste you are personally creating. Challenge yourself to make incremental changes to the products you buy, avoiding the synthetic material where you can. Every plastic product less in our world is valuable.
And if you are a founder that is already tackling the plastic crisis, let’s get in touch! We are always looking for innovative startups to invest in that help make the world a better place.
Simply use this link to apply for funding.