Today’s Solutions: December 06, 2022

Upon the European Union’s recent decision to ban plastic cultery, plates and straws by 2021, we encourage our readers to think vigilantly about seemingly sustainable alternatives.

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By Gunter Pauli and Jurriaan Kamp

Let’s talk about plastic.

Globally, we are discarding a million plastic bottles per minute. One study published in Science Advances found that humans have manufactured eight billion metric tons of plastics—weighing the equivalent of one billion elephants, according to the The Telegraph—since World War II.

More than half of the eight billion has ended up in landfills or as pollution in the environment. In fact, according to Science, every year, four million metric tons of plastic end up in our oceans. That comes to five bags filled with plastic for every foot of coastline in the world. Shall we agree that this is unreasonable? What bothers most is that this information is widely known and, yet, why don’t we do anything serious about this?

Less than 10 percent of all that plastic has been or is being recycled. Somehow the most successful form of recovery of plastics is simply burning it—and burning is actually not a good idea, as it releases a lot of polluting, unhealthy particles. How is it possible that that “one million per minute” water bottle that consists of PE (polyethylene) with a cap of PP (polypropylene)—with a half-life of hundreds of years—has become a standard on the market, while the functional use of the bottle is only a few weeks long? Someone must have noticed the total mismatch between function and duration. However, companies still receive a license to continue to waste resources this way, and people, without wit or guilt, continue to drink and discard.

The plastic problem has been on the top of the agenda of the green movement for decades. Activists are pushing for plastics that are nontoxic, biodegradable, and that drive is, understandably, widely supported. In view of the mess that has been created and the incapacity to really recycle, we want biodegradability. We want things to go back to the planet. That’s what happens to our bodies when we die. It’s a concept we understand. But while we rightfully embrace this natural way of going back to where the plastics come from, most of us—including the policy makers—don’t seem to understand that there are different forms of degradation with very different outcomes. Biodegradation is often equated with composting, and that requires soil and the presence of bacteria that operate under a very specific availability of oxygen.

Take the example of detergents. They provided one of the first opportunities for championing biodegradation, because soaps released into rivers and seas pollute the habitat of fish and other marine life. Biodegradable detergents require a combination of warm water, a diverse number of water-borne bacteria, and a lot of time. A detergent can call itself biodegradable when 80 percent disappears within 21 days in water of 77°F degrees. Now the question is: Except for the tropics, where in the world do we have such warm water? In, for instance, 65-degree water, it can take months to reach 80 percent biodegradation—which still leaves 20 percent not degraded. In other words: Even biodegradable soaps still pose a major threat to aquatic life.

Soap has a big impact on water: It reduces the tension of the water surface. Water has a tension, and that prevents it from penetrating the tightly spun fibers of our clothes. In order to wash out the dirt and the stains, water needs to whirl around the fibers. That’s why we use soap to drastically reduce the tension. The problem is that soaps continue to reduce water surface tension after they have been released into the environment through sewage and waste water. That makes all the difference to, for example, frogs. Frogs have a smooth skin that protects them against any invading foreign material like naturally occurring heavy metals. However, if the water is polluted with detergents—even biodegradable ones— the water’s surface tension changes, and that allows heavy metals to enter the skin of frogs, making them sick, mutate, and die.

To add to the confusion: A synthetic material may degrade in soil, but it may not degrade at all in the sun. Degradation by sunlight—photo degradation—is not biodegradation. Plastics that degrade in the soil are very likely to stay intact in light. They have been formulated to block out ultraviolet light so that packaging does not degrade if left in open air. That makes sense. Nobody wants to buy a water container in the supermarket that starts falling apart when it is left in the sun for a few hours. Nearly all products are made to withstand the strong ultraviolet rays. So many plastics that are biodegradable in soil do not degrade in the sun. A plastic bottle left in the heat and blazing sun of the desert will at best get brittle.

In water, it gets even worse. Biodegradation in the soil depends on micro-organisms that need oxygen. These organisms don’t live in water. That is why “biodegradable” plastics in rivers and lakes withstand degradation. Salt water provides yet even more complex circumstances. Salt acts as a preservation agent—we salt meat and fish to preserve it. So, if you put “biodegradable” plastic in salt, you may be preserving it forever. We feel better when we buy a bottle that is made from biodegradable plastic, but if that bottle gets into the ocean, it’ll be there for hundreds of years. Plastics do not decompose easily in the sea. However, there is a withering effect that makes big pieces smaller. Ultimately, the polymer itself—the building block of which the bottle or the toothbrush was made—gets tiny, so tiny that it is hardly visible to the human eye, or is mistaken for plankton by fish. That’s the terrible problem of the microbeads that are blocking the intestines and gills of fish and then getting into our bodies.

Biodegradability is a complex and confusing process that has blindfolded us. For a sustainable society based upon whatever is available locally, we need something better: Raw materials must be from a continuously renewable source. Even when the materials are “green,” their sources should not depend on farming that destroys ecosystems or mining that ultimately depletes existing stock and leaves ghost towns behind. The design and manufacturing of products changes drastically when renewability becomes the focus. Let us be open and clear: Long-term economic development and the viability of communities depend on a fair and continuous access and value generation of renewable resources. The apple that falls from the tree each year is a renewable resource. Mining waste, piled up for over decades or centuries, that is converted into stone paper, which can be reused again and again—forever is also a renewable resource. Platforms that grow seaweed using the nutrients from currents of deep upwellings provide a renewable resource as well. We need to turn our attention to how we can make everything renewable. That means that every product—after it has been used—should become a feed, building block, energy source, or material for something else without needing to decompose or biodegrade first. Ideally, we should really want only things that are mineral that will never decompose and can only be transformed. As Antoine Laurent de Lavoisier defined renewability in a sustainable way, “Nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything is always transformed,” with the help of modern technology, we can design renewability everywhere. One inspiring example with a massive potential comes from an ancient product: silk.

The story goes that silk was discovered by accident. Some five thousand years ago, the Chinese empress Hsi-Ling Shi was drinking tea under a mulberry tree in the palatial garden when suddenly a cocoon fell into her cup. The cocoon floated in the hot tea, and when the empress tried to pick it out with chopsticks, she pulled out a very thin and very long thread. She started to unwind the thread and ended up with hundreds of yards of it, enough to stretch around the garden. Her husband, the legendary Yellow Emperor, Huangdi (known as a great inventor) devised a way to make woven silk out of the thread: a perfect, shiny fabric for his wife’s new clothes. The accidental discovery led to a new era in Chinese civilization. Silk, spun from the cocoon of the silkworm, became popular in the dynasty. People could not create only the finest clothes and carpets out of it but could also wrap it around vegetables and fruits to make them stay fresh longer. When the world learned about the marvels of silk, demand started to increase— particularly from the Roman Empire—and a trade route was established linking East and West. This route took hundreds of years to develop and became known—thanks to Marco Polo, who went straight from Venice to China bypassing Indian and Turkish traders—as the Silk Road. Silk was a luxury product that at the height of its popularity was worth its weight in gold. Silk is also a renewable product with an amazing impact on the ecosystem. It is not just operating within the carrying capacity, it is increasing the carrying capacity; it regenerates the ecosystem and develops the territory where it is grown, and thus develops the territory where it is grown! That is the real power of renewable products.

Demand for silk requires the planting of trees. In fact, that’s where the silk story started in ancient China. The Chinese wanted to regenerate a forest cover in vast arid regions. The mulberry tree was one of the few that could survive the harsh weather conditions. Not only that, the tree had no problem providing half of its leaves to feed silk caterpillars. These caterpillars created a large number of droppings that over years created a thin film of soil. The barren land got a canopy with the mulberry trees— applying the laws of physics, trend 7—and the collaboration, the symbiosis of the trees with the caterpillars—3D farming, trend 1—regenerated the soil. After some ten years, that soil was ready for farming again. The demand for silk spurred an upcycling of nutrients, matter, and energy that revived a whole area, region, and even a nation. The international trade of silk became one of the most successful stories of international exchanges throughout history. The replenishing of the topsoil is one of the least told stories of the wonders of silk.

The invention of nylon in the 1930s allowed for controlled, standardized production and destroyed the thousand-year-old silk ecosystem. The production of silk dropped from a few million tons per year to barely 100,000 tons. And the world moved from a renewable system that ensured fertility of the land while providing a massive carbon sink to a non-renewable, synthetic system that, pound for pound, is cheaper but releases carbon and adds to global warming. The production of each ton of nylon releases some 15 kilograms of carbon—the textile industry is the fifth largest contributor to CO2 emissions in the United States. The good news is that, just as silk advanced civilization in the past, this glorious fiber could do the same today. Silk is much more than “the queen of fabrics,” the material we know from elegant scarves and ties. The razor is an unexpected example of a product that would radically change if we used silk in its production. Because a razor blade constantly gets wet, it requires corrosion-resistant steel. The steel contains iron, carbon, silicon, manganese, chromium, and molybdenum, as well as a coating of titanium. With each razor, those raw materials are thrown away after a couple of shaves. An estimated 10 billion razors are thrown away every year. That’s 250,000 tons of valuable metal thrown into landfills. Silk could provide an alternative. It is sharp and hard enough to pull keratin, the protein from which hair is made, out of its stub. A wheel of fine silk threads can easily pull the hair from the chin, similarly to how an old lawn mower works.

Cosmetics is another ideal market for silk, because, aside from water, polymers are the most common ingredients in cosmetics and personal care products. For example, they act as fixing agents, thickening agents, emulsifiers, or foam stabilizers. The introduction of silk polymers in cosmetics is easy, because we often associate skin and hair care products with “silky smoothness.” Today the most expensive creams on the market rely on sea-weed extracts and silk. The silk polymers provide the creams with structure. Silk can also be used in sunscreen products. It ensures that UV radiation is scattered because—unlike the zinc, aluminum, or titanium oxide solutions that dominate the market—silk disperses ultraviolet light. That is much healthier than the products that block the sun and plug your skin pores while releasing metal oxides into nature that find their way into the food chains of trees and birds. Silk can replace the chemical polymers in hair-coloring products as well.

One of the most exciting developments is the use of silk in biomedical applications. Silk shares a short gene sequence with the human genome. That’s why silk proteins are easily absorbed by the human body. For many years now, silk has been used in sutures, but new developments make it possible to use it in artificial skin, blood vessels, and tendons, and in the regeneration of damaged nerves. It can also be used to heal aging cartilage by stimulating the growth of new cartilage in damaged joints. Lab experiments have shown that it’s possible to close gaps of almost three inches between the two broken ends of a nerve. Repairing the spinal cord is a still distant but achievable ultimate goal.

Silk is also a very strong material. Much stronger, in fact, than expensive metals like stainless steel and titanium, and it could be used in new applications such as aerospace and mobile phones. It is tougher than Kevlar, the synthetic fiber known for its high tensile-strength-to-weight ratio. With all these applications, we can use a lot of silk. To put that in perspective: A necktie requires at least a hundred silkworms; a kimono and a wedding dress a million. Think about how many silkworms it would take to replace billions of razors.

The most important contribution of silk is not that it replaces mined minerals and non-degradable plastics but that it can regenerate and support entire ecosystems. It can be produced on a large scale in many dry regions of the world as part of a strategy to regain productivity and fertility in a local economy. The production of one pound of raw silk provides nine pounds of pure fertilizer in the form of silkworm feces. This saves chemical fertilizer on top of the CO2 absorption by trees and regenerated soil.

Silk generates a lot of employment too. The silkworm cultivation is labor intensive. It requires about 2.4 jobs per acre. To serve the emerging market, we would require the conversion of at least six million acres of barren land into fertile soil. That would create an estimated 15 million jobs. And then we are not even talking about the ultimate large-scale potential of the reintroduction of silk. It is critical to note that silk does not just compete with another fabric or resource. If we embark on the trend from biodegradable and sustainable to renewable and regenerative, then you cannot compare one pound of silk with one pound of titanium or nylon; you have to compare the non-renewable system with the renewable system that offers so many multiple benefits including the regeneration of top soil. The production of silk, with all its multiple benefits, supports and strengthens local economies. The opportunities of silk vastly outshine anything a manufacturer of synthetic fabrics can offer.

Finally, we need to address an important ethical dimension of the production of silk: How do we process the cocoons? The search for productivity has urged silk farmers to boil the cocoons and recover the fibers as one long thread, much like the empress in the anecdote. However, this heat process kills the caterpillar, which then never transforms into the moth nature had intended it to be. How do you feel about a wedding dress that was created as a result of boiling a million moths to death? There is an alternative and better way to produce silk: Let the caterpillar follow its natural cycle by creeping out of the cocoon, thus ripping the unique, lengthy fiber into hundreds of short threads requiring more work and a higher cost for spinning. For millions of Buddhists and Hindus it is obvious the slightly higher cost of production is justified. The higher cost can easily be integrated into the silk business. Today a kilogram of good-quality cocoons is worth $5; a kilogram of thread somewhere between $60 and $70; and a kilogram of cloth a few hundred dollars. If silk were used in the production of razors and medical purposes, thereby replacing plastics and expensive metals, it would be worth millions of dollars. There’s probably no other agricultural product with such a value chain completely built on continuous renewability, regenerating ecosystems, and promoting life. The future depends on our choice of renewable products that build up the ecosystems and continuously generate value, beyond what our present business model can imagine.

This is an excerpt from The Third Dimension by Gunter Pauli and Jurriaan Kamp. You can order the book here.

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