What are the problems with biodegradable plastics? Can it be a real sustainable replacment for regular plastics? Is biodegradable plastic the perfect solution?
Read next: how we define eco-friendly materials
The plastic issue
By now, we all know and understand our world have a serious plastic problem and we need to do something. The great Pacific Garbage Patch is now bigger than Texas and by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the sea.
These horrendous scenes have led to companies trying to develop biodegradable plastic.
It sounds like the ideal solution, plastic that breaks down naturally and doesn’t build up in the environment. However, it is not so simple. so what are the problems with biodegradable plastics?
3 biodegradable plastics problems
Problem 1: Does it really bio-degrade?
The main problem with biodegradable plastics is that they don’t usually work. This is pretty much the immediate downfall of the concept. Plastic itself is not natural and so is not consumed by anything on earth.
To make biodegradable plastic what is often done is that conventional plastics have things added to them to make them more appealing to bacteria and microbes (So they will want to breakdown the plastic). The truth is, It actually takes more resources to make biodegradable plastic.
Sadly however, most don’t actually break down and those that do tend to photodegrade or oxo-degrade (break down in light or oxygen) to fragments.
These fragments still pose a hazard for marine and terrestrial life similar to conventional plastics.
Problem 2: What do we do with them?
Where do you put a biodegradable bottle when you are done, is another one of the main problems with biodegradable plastics.
Unfortunately, biodegradable plastics are not accepted at recycling centers usually as the extra chemicals in them mean they can’t be recycled in the same way.
They also can’t go into landfill as they require heat, light and oxygen to breakdown. Landfills lack all 3 of these requirements and even ones that do breakdown often create methane which is a very potent greenhouse gas.
They also can’t go into compost so really there is nowhere to put them.
Problem 3: Biodegradable plastic or Bioplastic?
Another of the problems with biodegradable plastics is that the names are confusing.
Bioplastic and biodegradable plastic are very different things that have names that are similar enough to cause confusion.
- Biodegradable plastics are oil derived “conventional” plastics with extra chemicals added.
- Bioplastics are made of plant material like corn starch and designed to be compostable.
So can we just use bioplastic?
Compostable bioplastic sounds like the answer but it is not. Compostable is one of those vague terms that no one wants to define.
These bioplastics will not break down in your average compost bin nor will they break down in landfills. They require very specific conditions to break down which can only be found in specially made commercial composters. There are only 42 of these composters in the entire US.
What are the problems with biodegradable plastics and the environment?
There is an argument that the additional farming and land use devoted to making them are actually more energy-intensive than making a bottle out of recycled plastic but it will depend on many variables.
In some cases the breakdown of these plastics will also release small amounts of toxic chemicals, the effects are not yet known but are another issue to contend with.
So is there a better solution?
Yes because there is a 3rd type of plastic known simply as “Compostable” plastic which is further confusing.
Compostable plastic is biodegradable but the term composable is so unregulated that is very hard to know what is meant by it in different local authority areas.
In Europe, all compostable plastic is stamped EN13432 and made to the same standard but this standard has not yet extended into the US, making compostable plastics an extremely confusing area.
The lack of regulation is one of the biggest problems with alternative plastics.
What needs to happen?
Given the problems with biodegradable plastics, it is clear they are not the solution. We need to lower the demand for plastic altogether.
Single-use plastics have taken over our lives and people are turning to them for their convenience not realizing the impact they have on the world will be damaging for many years to come.
The plastics we do use need to become more standardized and coded as they are in Europe, and serious infrastructure needs to be added to cope with what we have.
We also need to conduct wide-scale cleanup operations in our oceans before the problem becomes any worse. We also need to start imposing sanctions and taxes on those who create plastics and on those who do not deal with them correctly at an institutional level. Plastic contamination is an issue too.
If a truck carrying bioplastic is found to have non-bio plastic in it then the whole shipment is sent to landfill which ruins all the hard work of making them.
A few confused householders could inadvertently be responsible for causing tons of unnecessary pollution because there is no information or education on what can or can’t be recycled which is also an issue.
Crucially the terms biodegradable or compostable still do not relate to whether a material can break down naturally which is very misleading.
The best solution
What are the problems with biodegradable plastics? The fact that we have to make them at all.
The best thing to do is to avoid unnecessary plastic wherever possible. Take your own bags to the store, reuse your water bottle, reuse your packaging and also read the label on your plastic so you know where it can be disposed of.
Most plastic that ends up in the wrong place is done accidentally so reading the labels is extremely important. If you can switch to glass bottles over plastic as they are far easier to recycle.
The problems with biodegradable plastics are currently equal to or worse than the benefits, which is a horrible situation to be in. It is a difficult issue but one we can still overcome to make the world a better place.
What are the problems with biodegradable plastics?
- Most of the products don’t really biodegrade
- It’s nor respected in most recycling centers
- It’s many times confused with Bio-plastics