Most folks stocking up on produce at Trader Joe's and splurging on a bubble tea on the way home aren't happy about all the plastic packaging, but that doesn't stop them from retracing their steps a week later. To a designer, this discrepancy between what people claim to want and what they actually do isn't a moral failing of the individual; it's a sign that something's broken in the system, and that a better solution must be out there.
Surveys consistently find that people want to reduce their reliance on plastic, eliminate single-use products, and support eco-friendly alternatives. Yet more plastic products and plastic packaging was sold in 2020 than ever before. Before we look for solutions, we have to figure out why plastic remains so popular.
The answer is a combination of affordability, performance, and self-reinforcing feedback loops. Plastic is cheap because it’s a derivative of oil refinement—an industrial process that’s been optimized at massive scale—and it can be manufactured very efficiently. As a material, plastic is impervious to water and extremely lightweight. The final piece of the puzzle is the way the world has been rebuilt with plastic in mind, from international produce supply chains facilitated by shrink-wrapped plastic film to underground irrigation systems made possible by corrosion-resistant PVC pipes.
An alternative that checks all these boxes is the holy grail, and we believe that agricultural waste is the best contender. Like oil, agriculture has a global footprint and produces huge waste streams: think rice husks, corn cobs, wheat straw. You can sift through these materials to find almost any natural characteristic you’re looking for, whether it’s strength, energy content, or durability.
Further research and processing is needed to get the most out of these byproducts, but we shouldn’t wait for every breakthrough to start switching where we can. Agricultural waste is an immense source of raw material that’s ready to be utilized in countless ways today, and people are hungry for these options.
Next we’ll introduce you to a man in the Philippines who saw this potential decades ago and devoted his life to making the change happen.