Is Biodegradable Plastic Safe for the Earth? Image of plastic packaging as environmental issue.
10 Oct

Is Biodegradable Plastic Safe for the Earth?


Biodegradable plastic seems earth-safe, and yet it’s been the center of controversy for environmentalists for years. After all, the average consumer hears “biodegradable” and “compostable” and immediately assume that the items are good for the environment. However, biodegradable plastics aren’t all that marketers portray them to be…least of all, actually biodegradable.

3 “Biodegradable” Plastics

Initially, plastic was designed to last. Stabilizing chemicals kept the plastic from becoming discolored with age or light exposure. But as plastic pollution littered the oceans, consumers and engineers alike began looking for a solution.

  • Biodegradable Plastics – Created from petrochemicals like standard plastic, but is designed to break down faster
  • Bioplastics – Engineered from natural materials such as corn or maize
  • Eco/recycled Plastics – Generated from used and recycled plastic

These three types of plastics are known for being better for the planet, and yet, they each fall short of being truly compostable.

Is Biodegradable Plastic Safe for the Earth?

The small print on plastic bags often touts environmentally-friendly statements. You may see words like “photodegradable” and “oxo-degradable.” These biodegradable plastics contain chemicals or additives that, under the right circumstances, will help the plastic to decay faster. In most cases, this plastic needs light and oxygen to begin decomposing.

During the decomposing process, biodegradable plastics release a toxic residue. Since the biodegradable plastic is created from petrochemicals, it’s not always capable of cleanly composting.

Determining the Break Down

In 2014, some of the European Parliament moved to ban oxo-degradable plastics. Although their ban was blocked, their work created an upsurge of research on biodegradable plastics. That research determined that oxo-degradable plastics don’t compost well nor do they anaerobically digest or break down in landfills.

When biodegradable plastics end up in the ocean, the temperature of the water is too cold to allow the biodegradable plastics to break down. Thus, these plastics will float like their conventional plastics counterparts. If by chance, the plastics do begin to break down in the ocean, the tiny plastic fragments can be harmful to the sea creatures.

While many manufacturers and marketers like to promise consumers that biodegradable plastics are good for the environment, the truth is that our plastic technology still has a long way to go before it can truly be labeled compostable and biodegradable.

The Drawbacks of Biodegradable Plastic
For being called “biodegradable,” there is very little that genuinely breaks down when it comes to biodegradable plastic.

Methane Gas – during decomposition, biodegradable plastics create greenhouse gases, which contribute to global warming.
Ultraviolet Light Exposure or High Temperatures – to decompose, biodegradable plastics require these elements. But even with these available, it can take years to break down, leaving behind fragments and toxic residues.
Recycling Confusion – the different categories of recyclable plastics can be difficult to recognize, meaning that plastic types get mixed up and become impossible to recycle appropriately.
 
When it comes down to it, biodegradable plastics do have the potential to be better for the environment than traditional plastics. However, the engineering of biodegradable plastics isn’t quite where we want them. The ultimate goal is to have plastics break down into benign waste that the earth can reuse.

One thing we can do to help the average consumer understand plastics is to provide knowledge. Plastics are a part of daily life. We need to take the steps today to protect our tomorrows.