ARE BIOPLASTICS THE SOLUTION?
"Bioplastic" just means made from plants - this does not mean completely plant-based, or that it breaks down like a plant would. It encompasses a HUGE range of materials & uses.
Often presented as an ecologically friendly alternative to plastic, in reality they may be making the problem worse. A 2015 report by the United Nations found that bioplastics don’t solve the problem of marine debris, and in fact may make increase use and littering, as people are misled into believing they will break down or are recyclable.
Something that breaks down.
This doesn't occur with biological materials, but can occur chemically.
[Note: doesn’t go away]
All plastic is degradable, you can break it into little pieces.
Can be broken down by bacteria & other microorganisms.
Can be processed by, and become part of, other living things.
For example, an apple core. If left on a beach, it will eventually be broken down by bacteria and other microorganisms, and the components will be used and integrated back into the ecosystem.
A type of biodegradable plastic, which will break down under certain conditions, within a certain time limit.
Some compostable plastics will break down in backyard compost, or even if they end up as litter. However many require very specific conditions, such as the heat produced by industrial compost sites.
[Note: still may never break down if it ends up in the ocean, beach or landfill]
So, not all bioplastics are created equal.
While some bioplastics may break down, it's highly dependent on where they end up - a Compostable Bioplastic cup that goes into landfill won't break down for example.
"Oxo-biodegradable" plastics, like HDPE (plastic bags) are made from fossil fuels and don't appear to actually biodegrade.
"Hydro-biodegradable" is made from plant-based materials (like starch) but also generally won't break down in the ocean or environment.
These also have a range of additives which have their own biodegradability & health concerns.
Generally compostable plastic is the best choice, but still has it's own strict requirements (generally not met in the ocean) and often need the heat of an industrial compost facility.
So bioplastics may use less fossil fuels (oil & gas) , which is great. Some types may break down under the right conditions, which is also good news.
But we need to be very careful about how we use these plastics. If I got a takeaway coffee for example, I couldn't just put the cup in the bin, I'd need to take it to a commercial compost facility (there are none of these where I live). If I put it in the recycling bin, that load of recycling could be contaminated & landfilled. If I put it in my home compost it won't break down. If it somehow ends up in the ocean, it can have the same negative impacts as regular plastic.
There are so many types out there, many of which don’t biodegrade. So, don’t fall for the greenwash. Next time you see a Bioplastic, check what it really is. What’s it made from? It is just degradable? What are the additives? Where does it need to end up to actually biodegrade?
Assuming we can find a material which will biodegrade (& works the way we imagine it should), is it better than single use plastic?? The obvious answer is yes. Of course it’s better to use renewable resources (plants) instead of non-renewable resources (oil) to make plastic bags. And ideally the things we use should break down to leave no trace.
The real problem here is single-use. We are using resources, and energy, to make a product which people still may only use for 12 minutes (the average life of a plastic bag) and then it's waste. It has to be dealt with in the waste stream, ensuring it ends up in the right place and is broken down properly.
Wouldn’t it make a lot more sense to just get a cloth bag (preferably one made of recycled fabric) which we use repeatedly?
There are so many other awesome solutions, check them out here: