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Biodegradable Plastics: new solution or new problem?

Date:06 September 2018
Author:Francisco Amaral
Recycling
Recycling

Mmmmm, you just finished your delicious smoothie and are looking for the last drops through your clear plastic cup labelled “biodegradable plastic”. The smoothie done, you’re now standing in front of two bins – one for plastic and one for regular trash. What do you choose? 

Your intuition tells you that if it says plastic then the plastic bin is the one to go for but it also says biodegradable so you’re not really sure anymore… You’re running late for your next class and you feel an environmental headache is about to come down so, in the mist of confusion, you burn to randomly throw it and hope for the best. But, before totally breaking down, don’t you wonder what biodegradable plastics truly are about? Sit down and read this, you’re already late for class anyways.
Plastic packaging labelled as biodegradable can be derived from two sources: traditional petrochemicals with additives (for a faster breakdown) or organic biomass – which are called bioplastics. These bioplastics are marketed as a green alternative to regular plastic because they are technically “carbon neutral” [1] (they come from renewable, carbon-absorbing plants) and do not emit toxic fumes when incinerated [2].

However, these plastic alternatives aren’t as green as they wish to be. Your smoothie cup can only break down in high-temperature industrial composting facilities, if you throw it into nature it will remain there for as long as a regular PET plastic cup and, in addition to all this, in the case it does end up in a composting facility, it will produce methane (a powerful greenhouse gas) while decomposing [3].

With this in mind you’re right to start thinking that with the regular bin it will end up burnt or composted, and that it isn't such a perfect disposal method. You therefore decide to turn to the plastic bin.

Well, not so fast…your bioplastic smoothie cup doesn’t belong in the plastic recycling bin either. Bioplastics are of different origin than regular plastics, and so they will contaminate the recycling stream, rendering full batches worthless, and impacting the potential reusability of conventional plastics. To add to all this, some of the production technologies lying behind your cup are also more carbon and/or resource intensive [4].

After all, it seems that the “eco-friendly” plastic cup is better off in the regular bin. However, a question arises: are biodegradable plastics the perfect solution or just a greenwashing marketing tactic? I will leave this question unanswered but one thing is certain: even though innovation in this field is necessary, changing our “throwaway” mindset is what is essential to mitigate the plastic pollution problem. The real solution lays in opting for the reusable instead of the single-used. Bring your own cup for example, it will save you, and the planet, time and energy!


References
[1] L. McInnes, "The Environmental Impact of Corn-Based Plastics," Scientific American, [Online]. Available: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/environmental-impact-of-corn-based-plastics/. [Accessed 2018].
[2] R. Lamb, "What is Corn Plastic?," 11 November 2008. [Online]. Available: https://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/green-science/corn-plastic2.htm.
[3] Creative Mechanisms, "Everything You Need to Know About Bioplastics," Creative Mechanisms, 2016. [Online]. Available: https://www.creativemechanisms.com/blog/everything-you-need-to-know-about-bioplastics. [Accessed 2018].
[4] UN Environment, "Innovation abounds in plastic substitutes, but it’s behaviour change that will save our seas," 27 January 2017. [Online]. Available: https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/innovation-abounds-plastic-substitutes-its-behaviour-change-will-save-our.

Other Sources
[1] L. McInnes, "The Environmental Impact of Corn-Based Plastics," Scientific American, [Online]. Available: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/environmental-impact-of-corn-based-plastics/. [Accessed 2018].
[2] R. Lamb, "What is Corn Plastic?," 11 November 2008. [Online]. Available: https://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/green-science/corn-plastic2.htm.
[3] Creative Mechanisms, "Everything You Need to Know About Bioplastics," Creative Mechanisms, 2016. [Online]. Available: https://www.creativemechanisms.com/blog/everything-you-need-to-know-about-bioplastics. [Accessed 2018].
[4] UN Environment, "Innovation abounds in plastic substitutes, but it’s behaviour change that will save our seas," 27 January 2017. [Online]. Available: https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/innovation-abounds-plastic-substitutes-its-behaviour-change-will-save-our.
[5] United Nations Environment Programme, "Biodegradable Plastics and Marine Litter. Misconceptions, concerns and impacts on marine environments.," Nairobi, 2015.
[6] S. Rust, "Bioplastics Debate: Could They Harm The Environment?," 5 October 2011. [Online]. Available: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/bioplastics-debate-environment_n_919967.html?guccounter=1.
[7] FuturEnergia, "http://www.futurenergia.org/ww/en/pub/futurenergia/chats/bio_plastics.htm," [Online].
Available: http://www.futurenergia.org/ww/en/pub/futurenergia/chats/bio_plastics.htm. [Accessed 2018].
[8] T. Szaky, "Bioplastics and the Truth About Biodegradable Plastic," Huffington Post, 2017. [Online]. Available: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/tom-szaky/bioplastics-and-the-truth_b_8954844.html. [Accessed 2018].
[9] A. Vaughan, "Biodegradable plastic 'false solution' for ocean waste problem," The Guardian, 2016. [Online]. Available: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/may/23/biodegradable-plastic-false-solution-for-ocean-waste-problem. [Accessed 2018].
[10] C. Profita, "Are "Compostable" Products Really Compostable?," OPB - Ecotrope, 2013. [Online]. Available: https://www.opb.org/news/blog/ecotrope/is-compostable-stuff-really-compostable/. [Accessed 2018].