First things first: when it comes to plastic, the best choice for the environment is always to avoid it. Unfortunately, we don't always have that option. Because, it's often not possible to go completely without plastic on the way from production to the warehouse and finally to the customer. So after doing everything we can to avoid unnecessary plastic, but we just can't do without the many benefits of plastic in some places, we set out to find the most sustainable option.
In the battle of sustainable plastic alternatives, there are two main character: organic plastic and recycled plastic. We investigated both options for the pros and cons. Pretty quickly we discovered that, as is so often the case in life, things are not what they seem at first glance.
Bio-plastics here refers to plastics that are partly or mostly derived from renewable resources and that can be degraded by microorganisms or fungi under certain environmental conditions. That sounds like a great option in the first place ,but how sustainable is this alternative really?
The one seemingly unbeatable advantage of bio-plastic is that, in principle, it poses less of a threat to flora and fauna than conventional plastic because it decomposes far more quickly in nature. Given the immense amounts of plastic waste in the world's oceans, this is good news. However, this is only half the truth, because many bio plastics only decompose under optimal conditions, which are often not the case in nature.
Moreover, bio plastics are made from renewable resources, which, unlike oil, are theoretically infinite. The use of locally produced, renewable resources and the independence from oil is therefore a great advantage of bio plastic.
Many people misunderstand the concept of compostable plastics and dispose of them on the street, in nature or even in organic waste. However, compostable plastics only decompose under certain conditions and the decomposition process takes much longer thanorganic waste. These conditions are rarely present in nature. Therefore, even modern composting plants cannot process the bio-plastics and, moreover, cannot distinguish them from conventional plastics. There are still no sorting or recycling methods for this process, so bio-plastics usually end up being incinerated with other non-recyclable waste and contribute to air pollution.
This is thus the environmental worst case scenario for our waste and does the exact opposite of what is intended with such supposedly sustainable alternatives.
Moreover, the raw materials used to make bio-plastics are often crops that could also help feed starving people; or at least the raw materials are grown on agricultural land where food could also be grown.
Apart from the fact that the cultivation of these crops also consumes large amounts of fossil fuels, the cultivation of such crops causes further environmental damage such as soil acidification, high water consumption, loss of biodiversity and the use of pesticides.
As a result, life cycle assessments show that bio-based plastics have no general environmental advantages.
A sustainable alternative? Yes, but only if you fear that the plastic could end up in nature. At second glance, bio-plastics seem much less green than first thought.
Source: Heinrich Böll Stiftung, BUND:
Plastikatlas: Daten und Fakten über eine Welt voller Kunststoff 2019 (2. Aufl.): 35. CC BY 4.0.
Recycled plastic here refers to plastics that are made from packaging waste and are not produced from crude oil. We are looking in particular at materials that are not only recycled, but also fully recyclable.
The production of recycled plastic produces only half as many greenhouse gases as virgin plastic. This means that each ton of recycled plastic saves about one ton of CO2. Added to this are the savings that arise because the plastic waste is no longer incinerated, as is often the case. This in turn saves fossil fuels.
If the plastic is of a high-quality composition and a product is sorted by type, it is also fully recyclable. If somewhat more expensive processes and compositions are used and a functioning recycling system is promoted, plastics can be recycled and reused several times.
Unfortunately, even products made from recycled plastics are increasingly not being manufactured in a single-sort process, which is why they often end up in incinerators.
If recycled plastic ends up in the oceans, it poses a great danger to flora and fauna, unlike biodegradable plastic. Therefore, it is inferior to bio plastic in this point. However, as already mentioned, this also applies to most organic plastic.
A sustainable alternative? Yes, but only the combination of recycled and recyclable plastic hand in hand with a good recycling infrastructure is a sustainable option.
After we were initially enthusiastic about the idea of biodegradable plastic, because at first glance it seemed to eliminate all our problems with plastic, we ended up being convinced of the advantages of recycled and fully recyclable plastic.
As long as organic plastic cannot be fully decomposed with normal organic waste and in nature, it is not only greenwashing, but in some cases it causes even more problems than conventional plastic.
So what do we make of this realization? There is no such thing as "good plastic." We should continue to do without plastic where we can. Where we can't do without, we should use plastics that come from a recycling loop and can be returned to it.
At Rotholz, we are in constant contact with our suppliers and ask them to do without plastic wherever it will be possible. All plastic bags that cannot be avoided have been and will be recycled. The vast majority of shipments sent to our customers do not use disposable plastic. We completely avoid synthetic components in our fabrics in order to avoid microplastics.
Do you have any tips for a more sustainable use of plastic or plastic-free products, or do you know of the latest innovation that we haven't heard of yet? We are looking forward to your input on this complex topic. Feel free to write to us at