Biodegradable is one of those eco buzzwords that we eco-conscious lot get excited about. Usually, this describes natural materials, like cotton, bamboo or our food waste. All biodegradable means is that the material in question can break down with the help of bacteria and other natural organisms or conditions without contributing to pollution.
We all know that plastic pollution is a serious threat to our environment, and is a major contributor to climate change, landfills and microplastics in our food and water. So, surely biodegradable plastic is the answer? Plastic that breaks down with bacteria, and doesn’t pollute sounds great, right?
Well, not quite. Biodegradable plastic isn’t going to solve the plastic crisis, unfortunately, and it isn’t even that much more eco-friendly than normal plastic.
The Plastic Crisis
Plastics are in everything – from tiny fibres in our clothing, to our sanitary products, to our dog poo bags. Attempting to swap out all of these plastics for sustainable alternatives is almost impossible. It would require a lot of research, investment in new materials and reformulations of products. Unfortunately, plastic is cheap to produce, which is why it is used so frequently in every industry. According to the BBC, of the 6.3 billion tonnes of plastic we’ve thrown away since the 1950s, just 600 million tonnes has been recycled – and 4.9 billion tonnes has been sent to landfill or left in the natural environment.
90% of plastic is made with fossil fuels. 1 in 3 fish caught for human consumption contains plastic. Over 8 million pieces of plastic pollution make their way into the ocean every day. These are just some of the horrendous stats about plastic – there are many more. Our world (ocean and land) is filling up with plastic.
Traditional plastics take up to 500 years to decompose, meaning we still have centuries left of even the oldest plastic waste. Put simply, we are running out of space to keep our old plastic, and it is harming the planet, even with recent policies banning some single-use plastics.
The Trouble with Biodegradable Plastics
Despite biodegradable plastic being marketed as the savior of our planet, single-handedly undoing the years of plastic pollution… it isn’t. For starters, only 1% of plastic items on the market are biodegradable. Some biodegradable plastics are still made with fossil fuels.
Biodegradable plastics are broken down by bacteria and turned into biomass, water and carbon dioxide or methane. Most of them are compostable, although mostly in industrial settings rather than in your home compost bins, making it awkward to do so. According to policy, compostable packaging has to break down within 12 weeks under industrial conditions, leaving no more than 10% of the original material in pieces bigger than 2mm, and doing no harm to the soil. This means it can still release microplastics and be legally “compostable”.
In an experiment by Imogen Napper, four types of bags – normal plastic, compostable, biodegradable and exo-biodegradable – were placed in seawater, open air and soil, and left for three months. The compostable bag disappeared in water and disintegrated in soil. The other bags remained intact. All the bags left in open air disintegrated into microplastics. Her experiment showed that even biodegradable plastic won’t behave in the way average consumers expect, and they need to be recycled in an industrial setting rather than at home, and also that biodegradable plastics will break down into microplastics.
Biodegradable plastic can also encourage littering, as people are under the impression that it will biodegrade in a short time. In fact, most biodegradable plastics won’t break down at all in water or sat in a landfill – it requires specific conditions to do so. Not only this, but you can’t even recycle biodegradable plastics in the same way as normal plastic as it cannot be made into a new object, and negatively effects the shelf life of recycled plastic objects when combined with normal plastic.
What’s the Alternative?
Whilst we wait for more development and innovation in the biodegradable plastics industry, we can choose alternatives to plastic and biodegradable plastic that are biodegradable or easily recyclable, like metal, cotton, beeswax, wool, hemp, bamboo, ceramic, paper, cardboard, and silicone. Avoiding single-use plastics is the way forward – it’s easy to do so with so many great reusables on the market – as well as upcycling, recycling and composting where possible. Make sure to research how to best dispose of your waste before throwing it away – contaminants in recycling waste can mean lorry-loads of recycling needs to be disposed of rather than recycled.
If you don’t know where to get started, a subscription to Between Green Subscription Boxes is a great way to start – we send you a parcel-ful of sustainable, plastic-free products every month to help you make small swaps on your green living journey.