A common ‘solution’ to the plastic pollution problem is bioplastic. Often presented as an ecologically friendly plastic, in reality it may be making the problem worse. A recent report by the UN found that bioplastics don’t solve the problem of marine debris, and in fact may worsen the problem, increasing use and littering, as people are misled into believing they will break down or are recyclable.
‘Bioplastics’ is a HUGE term, with many definitions and is not a magical solution to the plastic pollution problem. This is a brief look at some of the common terms used around bioplastics (although it’s worth noting that they are often misused and definitions vary in different countries, there are no rules about using the terminology correctly). For a more detailed overview, checkout Wanderlightly's awesome blog on the subject.
‘degradable’ - something that breaks down
[Note: doesn’t go away]
All plastic is degradable, you can break it into little pieces.
‘biodegradable’ - can be broken down by 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.
‘compostable’ - 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 it’s worth noting that many compostable plastics also 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]
As this image from Green Plastics shows, a compostable plastic is the most specialised, and should therefore be the best option. However, as noted above, these plastics won't compost just anywhere - think about your coffee cup, or takeaway container, and which bin it usually ends up in. Chances are it's not a specially designated council compost bin. You could compost these fancy plastics yourself, but they still may leave toxic residues behind, not ideal for your fertiliser.
So, most ‘bioplastics’ are just tricking consumers (you and I), and businesses, into thinking the product will break down, and is good for the planet, when the opposite may be true.
As I see it, there are two parts to this problem:
What type of material actually is 'bio'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 (breaks into little pieces faster)? What are the additives? Where does it need to end up to actually biodegrade?
2. Bioplastic vs. Plastic
Is bioplastic better than what we’re using now?
Assuming we can find a material which will biodegrade, in a variety of environments, and 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.
However, I would argue that the fundamental 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 is 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?
Feeling a bit overwhelmed? Don’t worry, the solution is easy:
That’s it. Not single use, no matter how fancy they claim the material composition is. And best of all, reusable and second hand – making bags (like Boomerang Bags), or getting a funky mug from an op shop for your coffee, is infinitely better than the resources and transport needed to make anything new.
This leads us into the other important principle: It still takes energy and resources to make that stainless steel drink bottle, or new tote bag. So make sure you use it. Make new habits, be more conscious, think about the true cost of convenience, and just reuse it.
Questions? Comments? Or would you like to see more of the science behind these claims?