Biodegradability is a complex issue. Unknown and unclear terms are used in misleading ways. We have all heard the buzzwords around plastic that describe how it magically biodegrades. So let’s clarify the terminology.
Bio-plastics is the umbrella term to describe Bio-based plastics and Biodegradable plastics.
Bio-based plastics are fully or partially made from biological resources such as orange peels, seaweed and other plants, rather than the fossil raw materials used to make conventional plastic. Some are biodegradable while others are not. Biobased plastics make up 1% of the global and European plastic market for now, but this is expected to grow in the future.
Biodegradable is an adjective used to describe the chemical process in which microorganisms in a certain environment transform materials into water, carbon dioxide and biomass (plants). However, bio-based plastics plastics are not always biodegradable; this is a common misconception. Biodegradable plastic can be bio-based or fossil-based. Fossil-based plastics are considered a Bioplastic if they are fully biodegradable.
Compostable plastics are those that become biodegradable under home or industrial composting conditions. Read more on this topic here.
When plastics are claimed to be ‘biodegradable’, it is paramount to specify the environment and time needed for biodegradation to happen. Since the materials that make them up have different properties, they, therefore, require different conditions in which to biodegrade. These conditions are unfortunately not mentioned on your bio-degradable plastic bag or the packaging of biodegradable plastic cutlery.
In a nutshell, the main problems that arise with biodegradable plastics are:
Some plants like corn or maize, which are used as the feedstock for bio-plastics are treated with fertilizers or are genetically modified – this is considered harmful to the environment. The soil can lose nutrients and there is an estimation of 385 million yearly cases of non-fatal unintentional pesticide poisonings with approximately 11,000 deaths.
Bio-plastics and biodegradable plastics cannot be easily recycled.
Growing crops to make bio-plastics entail the normal environmental problems that accompany intensive agriculture such as greenhouse emissions from farm machinery and excess water use. It also raises the question of whether we are 'growing plastic'.
If left to biodegrade in landfills or the sea, most types of bio-plastics eventually break down into microplastics; in landfills, they are known to produce methane, a greenhouse gas that adds to the global warming issue.
Disposal and Recycling
Biodegradable plastics are not designed to be processed by recycling facilities that deal with other plastics. Adding biodegradable plastic to the plastics bin will contaminate the load and hinder the recycling process of normal PET plastics.
Do not put bio-plastics in the organic bin; they will not decompose the same way as food waste does. They will most likely break down into microplastics and contaminate the organic waste with more plastic.
Unfortunately, there is no bin for biodegradable plastics yet, which has created more problems than solutions. For now, it’s best to put your bio-degradable plastic into the normal waste bin.
Alternatives and Solutions
Simply consume less plastic. Educate yourself on the issue.
Some activists such as Moira Tourneur at Zero Waste France believe that governments should focus on standardising glass packaging for milk or yoghurt, where the bottles can be returned and reused.
Greenwashing needs to be stopped as some companies may portray their products as environmentally friendly through the use of marketing when they are actually not!
Use fabric shopping bags and reuse your plastic bags and bottles at home as much as possible.
Buy your coffee in a reusable coffee mug or thermos.
Bring your metal cutlery or containers from home. There is no need to buy plastic or bio-plastic cutlery when we have it in our kitchens at home.
Choose paper packaging over plastic. Some supermarkets like Lidl offer paper bags to carry your shopping.
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