Plastic Material Alternatives

Because plastics pose a threat to humans, plants, animals, and the environment, the development of plastic alternatives is extremely important.

Several alternative materials have been developed to be used for each of these common items. However, each alternative material has a number of pros and cons. Certain material alternatives are less versatile than others and can only replace certain plastic items. Each alternative material also has different disposal methods, where some are easily recyclable and others need to be incinerated or thrown in a landfill. Additionally, despite certain alternative materials being more sustainable than plastic, almost all alternatives use high amounts of natural gas and coal for production. Nearly all alternative materials are processed and formed in large-scale natural gas facilities using natural gas-powered machinery. Materials that are highly energy-intensive tend to have a larger carbon footprint and will emit more CO2 emissions.

Plastic Alternative Bag Comparisons

Single-use plastic bags are unsustainable, are mass produced and often immediately discarded, pollute the land and ocean, and pose a large threat to marine organisms. Because of the negative consequences of plastic bag usage, the demand for reusable bags is increasing. However, the production process of many plastic bag alternatives is significantly energy-intensive. Many plastic bag alternatives need to be reused many times before they match the CO2 emissions of one single-use plastic bag. Alternative bags need to be used many more times before they match the cumulative environmental impact of plastic bags. While plastic bag production is currently still the highest of all the listed alternative bags, a future increase in the production of any of the following alternative bags could have significant environmental consequences. To read more, go here.

Bag Material # of Usages to Match Plastic-Bag Production Emissions # of Usages to Match Plastic-Bag Cumulative Environmental Impact (e.g. water use, energy use, etc.)
Plastic 1 1
Paper 1 43
Non-woven Polypropylene 6 52
Woven Polypropylene 5 45
Polyester 2 35
Recycled PET 8 84
Organic Cotton 149 20,000
Conventional Cotton 52 7,100

Alternative Material Bag Examples

Plastic Material Alternatives Comparisons

The following table provides a breakdown of the most common plastic alternative materials. This table focuses on alternatives for the most common plastic items and states what each material is often used to replace, what major production energy source is used, how to dispose each material, and what the main pros and cons are for each material. An important trend to note is how many alternative materials use natural gas for production and how energy-intensive the production process is. By breaking down the pros and cons of each of these materials, we can better evaluate the feasibility and full impact of using plastic material alternatives.

Plastic Alternatives Database (1)

Affected Groups

While plastic alternatives can have beneficial impacts on the environment and may improve sustainability, certain groups are negatively impacted by switches to plastic alternatives. For example, people with physical disabilities often suffer from bans on certain plastic items because alternatives to plastic are often either less versatile or less durable. Of the most commonly used plastic items, certain alternatives to single-use plastic bags and straws tend to impact people with disabilities the most because they are highly relied on items. Firstly, handle-less paper bags are a very common alternative to plastic bags but they often pose significant issues for people with physical disabilities. Handle-less paper bags are difficult to hold, are not durable, can rip easily, and are easily affected by water. Bans on plastic bags in Canada have made paper bags the common alternative offered at stores which can impact strongly impact people with physical disabilities.

Similarly, single-use plastic straw bans can be harmful to people with different physical disabilities. Certain alternatives for single-use plastic straws are not flexible which can pose a threat to individuals with physical disabilities that affect motor functions, such as cerebral palsy or Parkinson’s disease. The effects of plastic straw alternatives listed below serve as one example of the common factors that are important to consider when considering the efficacy and reliability of alternative materials.

Effects of Plastic Straw Alternatives

Straw Material Allergy Risk Choking Hazard Not Positionable Not Heat Safe Quickly Dissolves Difficult to Sanitise High Cost
Metal X X X X X
Paper X X X X X
Glass X X X
Silicone X X X X
Acrylic X X X X X
Pasta/Rice X X X X X
Bamboo X X X
Biodegradable X X X X

<aside> 🥚 Common alternatives for plastic toy dinosaurs include wood and natural rubber. These alternatives reduce children’s exposure to toxic chemical additives in plastic toy dinosaurs, but would create significant cumulative environmental impacts if they were as mass produced as plastic toys.


⬅️  Environmental Impacts of Plastic