What impact do biodegradable plastics have on the environment, and what makes them the superior choice when considering plastic alternatives? Biotuff investigates biodegradable plastics and what consumers should consider before purchase.
Biodegradable is all the rage when it comes to a plastic alternative. They are by far the eco-friendlier option compared to plastics of the past. Traditional plastics take up to 500 years to decompose as they leech toxic chemicals into the ground and air we breathe. Regardless of our habits, approximately only nine percent of the plastics developed since the 1950s have been recycled! With most ending up in landfills or our fragile ecosystems and oceans.
Non-biodegradable or non-compostable plastics tend to be made from a petroleum base. As a result, they use ample fossil fuels to be created and have a much larger carbon footprint, plus they do not 100% break down and continue to damage the environment long after their production. On the other hand, bioplastics break down and use much fewer fossil fuels in creation. They are also far less toxic during their decomposition.
Do Biodegradable Plastics Harm the Environment?
Sadly, some supposedly biodegradable plastics can harm the environment. It is up to the consumer to understand the products they are purchasing and the term biodegradable. Some products worldwide are noted as 'biodegradable' or commonly known as 'oxo-degradable' but can be conventional plastic wrapped up with some clever marketing and a small aspect of biodegradable properties. Many of these products will not biodegrade entirely and leave tiny fragments or microplastics behind after decomposition.
Consumers must be aware and educated about the biodegradable plastics they invest in for everyday usage. Many of these oxo-plastics have been banned worldwide, along with traditional plastics, in the past few years. However, many still circulate today. The key is in the small print.
Consumers are advised to look for the following in their biodegradable products:
- Home compostable (AS5810)
- Industrial Compostable (AS 4736)
- Industrial Compostable (EN13432)
- Biodegradable and certified Compostable to Australian and European standards
- Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI)
What Are Biodegradable Plastics and How Do they Impact The Environment?
First, it is essential to understand the terminology concerning plastics. Degradable is your traditional plastic – yes, even though they can take up to 500 years to degrade, and even then, they will still leave a toxic component, they are considered degradable. Some plastics degrade more with sunlight, known as photodegradable plastics; they can break down more quickly with sunlight. However, they remain toxic to the environment and will leave microplastics behind.
Biodegradable plastics can be broken down in the correct environment. Natural microorganisms such as algae and bacteria slowly eat the products until they decompose entirely. After decomposition, all that is left is carbon dioxide and water- this all happens quickly. However, not all bioplastics can be easily broken down and may contain non-biodegradable aspects – as some have a mixture of renewable sources and fossil fuels.
Compostable plastic will completely biodegrade in the right environment and leave no toxic residue.
Choosing compostable and biodegradable products made from 100% renewable sources can ensure the plastic you choose can correctly break down in a reasonable amount of time, leaving no toxic residues. In addition, studies have proven that switching to plant-based, biodegradable and compostable plastics can significantly reduce greenhouse emissions.
How To Choose Biodegradable Plastics?
It is important to understand that all 100% biodegradable and compostable products have a shelf life. Consumers must utilise biodegradable products like regular organic living materials or ingredients, such as dairy. Many consumers would only purchase milk after checking the expiry date, and if they notice the product is past this date, they will typically complain to the stockiest. The same applies to biodegradable plastic products.
It is also vital that the public understand how to dispose of their biodegradable and compostable plastics correctly. It is also essential that the consumer become savvy with the rules and regulations around bioplastics. When investing in a product always check they have the correct biodegradable regulatory standards and that they only contain renewable sources and can ultimately be broken down.
Calling your local council and ensuring that you dispose of and recycle these products correctly is also important. Many councils now offer FOGO (Food Organics and Garden Organic) collections. Ensuring your compostable plastics can include in this is imperative. Checking whether the product is suitable for home and industrial composting can indicate the product's ability to break down in a composting environment.
Also, research your chosen brand. Are they active in the community, and are they educated on these subjects? Do they have a strong mission statement on why they produce these products, and are they transparent in their beliefs about traditional plastics and our environment?
Biodegradable and compostable plastics are most certainly the more sustainable way of the future. However, it is vital that consumers support the companies developing this way forward, putting pressure on local councils to offer more industrial composting facilities and options for disposing of these biodegradable products. Many biodegradable and compostable plastic products can break down in a landfill, but it can increase the time and the decomposition result.
So having ample specially designed composting facilities is vital to ensure these sustainable products have the perfect end life. Plus, consumers can benefit from the beautiful nutrient-rich soil produced to give life to plants, trees, and delicious vegetables.