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Guide to Biodegradable Plastics – Their Pros, Cons, and Uses

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:

  • understand the negative impact that plastic has on the environment;
  • are wondering if bioplastics can be used as an alternative to traditional plastic;
  • wish to know the difference between biodegradable and compostable alternatives. 

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.

What is biodegradable plastic?

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.

Bio-based vs. biodegradable

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.

Pros and cons of biodegradable plastics

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:

Pros of biodegradable plastics

  • They don’t contribute to plastic pollution. Conventional plastic leaves a negative impact on the environment due to its inability to break down. On the other hand, when exposed to certain conditions, biodegradable plastic can decompose over a relatively short period of time. 
  • They don’t release harmful chemicals upon decomposition. Traditional plastic breaks down over time into smaller plastic particles – microplastics. These microplastics accumulate and remain in the water and soil for a long time, polluting the environment even after full decomposition. Conversely, biodegradable plastic decomposes without leaving any harmful byproducts.
  • Potentially lower fossil fuel demand. With the rise of electric vehicles, plastics are predicted to drive the most oil demand growth in the following decades. By gradually replacing fossil fuel chemicals with renewable resources, the demand for fossil fuel in plastic production will eventually decline. 
  • Produce fewer greenhouse emissions. The production of some biodegradable plastics requires less energy and fossil fuels, therefore, less greenhouse gas gets into the environment.

Cons of biodegradable plastics

  • Some plastics might not break down in the natural environment. It is still to be determined if biodegradable plastics don’t pose any dangers to the environment in the long run. Some biodegradable plastic items decompose only when exposed to certain conditions, like elevated temperatures, humidity, and the presence of microorganisms. If plastics don’t break down entirely and remain in the soil, they can potentially cause more harm. 
  • High costs. The production of biodegradable plastics is associated with increased manufacturing costs. The lack of cheaper production technologies turns manufacturers away from switching to biodegradable plastic options.
  • Recycling challenges. Although biodegradable plastics are recyclable, they need to be recycled separately from traditional plastics. The biodegradable additives can contaminate the recycled materials and reduce their lifespan. 
  • Encourage a single-use mindset. Replacing plastic coffee lids and straws with biodegradable ones is a step, however, it’s not a big enough one. The availability of single-use materials can discourage people from implementing more effective eco-friendly practises, like zero and low waste living, recycling, and food waste reduction.
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What is compostable plastic?

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.

What is the difference between biodegradable and compostable plastics?

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. 

Pros and cons of compostable plastics

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:

Pros of compostable plastics

  • Made from raw renewable resources. Unlike conventional plastics, compostable plastics don’t require petrochemicals for production. They are predominantly made from plant-based materials, including wood, potato and corn starches, and sugar cane.  
  • Easier to recycle. Composting isn’t new. Large-scale composting is widely used to handle high volumes of organic materials, such as food and garden waste. Composting facilities organise waste pick-up from residential and commercial places to sort and turn this waste into a soil enhancer. More and more facilities start accepting compostable plastics for recycling.
  • They don’t require large territories for feedstock production. The industry aims to develop and broaden the base of feedstock by using plant residues and plants that can’t be used for food and feed production. Currently, less than 0.02 % of the global agricultural area is used for bioplastic feedstock. 

Cons of compostable plastics

  • Can’t be composted at home. Unless the labelling says the opposite, compostable plastics can’t be placed in your compost bin. The plastic that is labelled as “compostable” should be transferred to a specialised composting facility, which has different breakdown conditions from your home composting heap.
  • Lack of compostable facilities. Compostable waste collection remains a problem in many countries, as a big number don’t have proper recycling infrastructures. If you want to give your compostable plastic for recycling, you need to check the available options with your local authorities.

Biodegradable and compostable plastics uses

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:

  • Plastic bags;
  • Food packaging;
  • Single-use tableware;
  • Plant pots and containers;
  • Medical products.

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. 

Labelling standards

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:

  • A relevant label;
  • A specific standard that proves the degradability/compostability of the product;
  • Information about the conditions under which the product biodegrades/composts.

You can find the list of internationally recognised labels in the Environmental Communications Guide for Bioplastics.

Should you switch to biodegradable plastic?

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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  • Biodegradable plastic is designed to decompose by living organisms into water, carbon dioxide, and biomass. This type of plastic can be produced both from fossil fuels and renewable raw materials;
  • Bio-based plastics are synthesised from organic materials, however, they aren’t necessarily biodegradable;
  • Compostable plastic refers to plastics that can be turned into compost by exposing them to special breakdown conditions. Plastics that are labelled as “compostable” are intended for industrial composting, unless the packaging indicates that it’s suitable for home composting;
  • To identify biodegradable and compostable items, look at the label of the product. It should display specific quality standards, additional information about material, and end-of-life options.


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Image source: shutterstock/ Voinakh

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