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The world is full of plastic. Just think about the number of plastic items you use, put in the trash bin, or recycle on a typical day. And even though all of these items are convenient, we shouldn’t forget how much harm a single plastic bottle can cause to the environment.
From production, use, and final disposal – plastic contaminates the air, water, and land throughout its whole lifecycle. With all of this said, once it became crystal clear that plastic inflicts serious damage, scientists came up with an alternative solution to plastic pollution – biodegradable plastic.
Many brands started labelling their plastic products as “bio-based”, “biodegradable”, or “compostable”. But what benefit does this bring, and can we actually compost plastic bags at home?
So, if you:
Keep on reading! Here we will share the most common uses for environmentally-friendly plastics, their pros and cons, and how to distinguish them from the widely available non-degradable plastics.
Biodegradable plastic refers to any plastic that goes through the process of decomposition when exposed to various microorganisms, like bacteria and fungi. Depending on the conditions, biodegradable plastic can decompose within three to six months.
Biodegradable plastics are usually synthesised from biodegradable polymers that can be found in natural materials or manufactured from fossil fuels. It is designed to break down into water, natural gases, and biomass significantly faster than other plastics, which makes it a great alternative to conventional plastics.
The terms “biodegradable” and “bio-based” are often confused, however, they are not the same. The main difference between bio-based and biodegradable plastics is in the materials that they are made from. Bio-based plastics are made from non-petroleum based biological materials (both fully and partially), but they are not necessarily biodegradable. Some bio-based plastics don’t break down over time and aren’t suitable for disposal in open land.
Even though biodegradable plastic is a more eco-friendly alternative to conventional plastic, it’s important to be aware of the limitations. Let’s take a look at the main advantages and disadvantages of biodegradable plastics:
Compostable plastic is a type of plastic that breaks down only when exposed to specific conditions. The majority of compostable plastic items can be composted only in industrial facilities. Unlike home composting, industrial composting provides much higher and more stable temperatures (55-60°C) that ensure complete decomposition.
Compostable plastics are biodegradable, whereas not every biodegradable plastic is compostable. Biodegradable plastics are mainly designed to decompose in the natural environment. Compostable plastic, on the other hand, biodegrades under specific and controlled conditions that can be achieved only in industrial composting facilities.
Compostable plastics are often called “the next generation of plastics”, due to their positive environmental impact. That said, how positive is it, really? Below, you can find the advantages and disadvantages of compostable plastics:
Biodegradable and compostable plastics are starting to gain more and more recognition among many product manufacturers from different industry sectors. Currently, bioplastics represent less than one per cent of the whole plastic manufacturing share. However, in the following years, the demand for bioplastics will continue to grow and boost the production. Today, bioplastics are commonly used to make things like:
And it doesn’t stop there. With the expanding list of bio-polymers applications, it may be possible to utilise bioplastics in other sectors, such as building and constructions, electronics, and automotive and transport.
Depending on the chemicals used in the different types of plastic, the products will require different recycling processes. That said, it is important for bioplastics to have appropriate labelling to identify and facilitate correct waste sorting and recycling.
There are a variety of terms that manufacturers use to indicate that their product or its packaging is safe for the environment. However, if a product is compostable/biodegradable, it should display the following:
You can find the list of internationally recognised labels in the Environmental Communications Guide for Bioplastics.
The short answer – it depends. Even though biodegradable plastic has a clear advantage over normal one, when it comes to environmental impact, it still can’t be considered the best solution against plastic pollution.
According to statistics, in the UK only, almost 5 million tonnes of plastic items are purchased yearly, three-quarters of which become waste.
Even though the government is taking action to tackle plastic pollution, we are still far from understanding the impact of biodegradable, bio-based, and compostable waste on the environment. The standards for the production and utilisation of such types of plastic are still to be developed.
Our waste system isn’t fully capable of handling bio-plastic waste yet. Bio-plastics can’t be recycled together with conventional plastics, as they can ruin the quality of the conventional material. Therefore, they require separate recycling, and there are only 170 facilities in the UK that can do that.
The same applies to compostable plastic alternatives. Even though there are facilities that can process compostable plastic waste, councils don’t organise the collection of these items. Because of that, once compostable plastic ends up in the consumer’s hands, it immediately goes to the general waste bin. Theoretically, compostable plastics could be discarded with organic waste, however, some plants remove it from the waste to avoid contamination.
Considering all of these factors, you should be able to decide whether you want to use biodegradable plastic in your everyday life. Still, it is important to remember that a switch to a single eco-friendly alternative will not resolve the bigger problem. To reduce the negative impact we leave on the planet, we all need to implement sustainability practices, such as responsible energy consumption, reduction of food waste, recycling, and using less plastic in our lives.
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