5 weird materials that could replace plastic

From mushrooms to smart mud, the science world is working hard to find the next wonder material

Ooho, the water you can eat.
(Image credit: Ooho/Skipping Rocks Lab)

Plastic is a wonder. It's malleable, so it can be molded into a variety of useful objects — from bottles to bags to medical supplies. At the same time, it's also durable and can resist wear and tear. Indeed, since synthetic plastic was first invented back in 1907, the world hasn't been able to get enough of the stuff. According to one study, we've manufactured enough plastic since World War II to coat the entire globe in a layer of saran wrap.

The problem, of course, is that for all its benefits, plastic is pretty rough on the environment. A single plastic bottle, when tossed into a landfill, could take at least 500 years to show signs of decay. And those styrofoam packing peanuts that make sure your packages arrive unharmed? Those will sit around for one million years. That's a bummer, but even worse is that a lot of our discarded plastic doesn't wind up in a landfill at all. Instead, it lands in the ocean, with one study suggesting as much as 8 million metric tons of plastic found its way to the ocean in 2010. That's "five plastic bags filled with plastic for every foot of coastline in the world," says Jenna Jambeck, an associate professor at the University of Georgia and an author on the study.

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Jessica Hullinger

Jessica Hullinger is a writer and former deputy editor of The Week Digital. Originally from the American Midwest, she completed a degree in journalism at Indiana University Bloomington before relocating to New York City, where she pursued a career in media. After joining The Week as an intern in 2010, she served as the title’s audience development manager, senior editor and deputy editor, as well as a regular guest on “The Week Unwrapped” podcast. Her writing has featured in other publications including Popular Science, Fast Company, Fortune, and Self magazine, and she loves covering science and climate-related issues.