It’s a dirty word in my house.
I frequently see well-meaning posts from people in plastic-free groups sharing photos of a plastic product they’ve spotted that has splashed “Biodegradable” all over its label.
It’s exciting for a moment to think that’s one less product you need to find an alternative to and can carry on using guilt-free. But I’m the bearer of bad news..
Biodegradable is one of, if not the least meaningful eco terms out there. It simply means that a substance will break down over time. There are no time limits on being biodegradable so something that takes 400 years to biodegrade still gets to use this label!
The worst part is, when most plastics biodegrade they are merely turning into microplastics, which are now in our soil, our air, our rain water, and the placentas of newborn babies.
Compostable is the word I look for on labels but it is still a minefield.
You will find varying definitions of the term if you look it up. Some are very simple: “something that can be used as compost.”
Others are more nuanced: “can disintegrate into non-toxic, natural elements at a rate consistent with similar organic materials.”
Its use on labels is increasing and gives me more hope than when I see “biodegradable” but I still need to look closer to learn HOW it composts.
Some products are “industrial compostable” - this means they break down in a reasonable amount of time under specific conditions. The specific conditions usually require high heat (in the range of 60C or hotter). There is a British (BS) and European (EN) standard number 13432 that specifies a product (again under specific conditions) disintegrates such that no more than 10% remains after 12 weeks and surviving particles must not measure more than 2mm.
There is no standard specific to home compostability. In theory an industrially compostable plastic will compost at home over a longer time.
One company, TUV Austria, will certify a product as “OK Home!” Compostable if it breaks down within 12 months at 20C. Whether your compost heap in the UK maintains an inner temperature of 20C for a full 12 months is another matter!
Having the right conditions is the key to compostability. Plastics WILL NOT compost in a landfill! Landfills are built to be tombs for waste. They are lined with thick clay to prevent toxic chemicals from leeching into surrounding soil and water. The waste is covered with other waste and soil, preventing sunlight or air from acting on it.
When you are choosing a product because it says it is compostable, you must ask yourself if it will actually be composted. If you don’t have a compost heap at home, what will you do with the product? Can you truly access industrial composting to dispose of it? If not, it’s just another piece of poison plastic.
“Plant-based” is the current buzz phrase for how we’re meant to save the planet. It’s fine as a diet if that’s your thing, but it’s a little more problematic when it comes to plastics.
In a (oversimplified) nutshell, plastic is made from oil combined with esters (chemical compounds) to create long polymer chains.
It used to be the oil in plastics was from petroleum but these days the oil can be from plants. Petroleum or plants, the end result is the same: plastic. Plastics derived from plants are commonly referred to as bioplastics.
A lot of people assume that because bioplastics are plant based that somehow they aren’t bad for the environment. The truth is, bioplastics cause the same harms to the environment as petroleum plastics, and more.
Until I started researching I thought petroleum plastics didn’t biodegrade and bioplastics did. Nope. The truth is, some petroleum plastics do biodegrade (see my post about the term biodegradable - it doesn’t mean much!) and some bioplastics don’t biodegrade.
The part that leaves me shaking my head is while we barely have infrastructure to recycle plastic from fossil fuels, we haven’t got any infrastructure for recycling bioplastics!
If you put bioplastic waste into your recycling bin it can contaminate and ruin an entire batch of recycled plastic. You can’t visually distinguish bioplastic from petroleum plastics, so it’s difficult (maybe I should say impossible) to detect and remove them from the materials stream! So you’re buying plastic products made from plants thinking you’re being sustainable, and doing your part to recycle, and all you end up doing is making things worse!
The only thing “sustainable” about making plastic from plants is that the plastics industry will be able to carry on polluting the earth long after fossil fuels have run out! We’re worried about deforestation to grow soy for feeding animals or to make palm oil. At what point will bioplastics gather enough momentum that we start cutting rainforest so Walkers can make bags for their crisps?
Plastic is a very useful material in some cases, but we in the west are using and abusing way too much of it. We must change our mindsets about plastic and learn how to live without it as much as possible.
Did you know…
This symbol was designed in 1970 by a student in California named Gary Anderson. He submitted it to a contest as part of a corporate-sponsored environmental awareness campaign leading up to the first Earth Day and his design won.
The symbol is in the public domain and anyone can use it. There is no legislation or other controls/enforcement of who uses it or how. It’s the symbol equivalent of the term “biodegradable” in that it’s fairly meaningless.
The truth is, the idea for recycling and its promotion was created by the polluters themselves - the plastics industry. People like you and me were getting annoyed at the amount of plastic pollution they were seeing and started to speak out. Some bright spark working in petrochemicals had the idea to invent the concept of using old plastics to make new plastics and voila! The public was appeased and threw themselves into sorting their recyclables. Never mind that the technology didn’t exist. Everyone was happy to have another “away” where they could dispose of their trash and the plastic makers were able to carry on.
Since then we’ve learned a few key facts:
Only 9% of all plastic ever created has been recycled. The other 91% is in our homes, in landfills, in our oceans, or has been incinerated
Plastic can’t be recycled to the same quality, only down cycled to a lower quality product
Though there are 7 high level categories of plastics, there are millions of different actual recipes for plastics which makes recycling it very tricky
Here in the UK we only have the capacity for recycling the plastic waste the country manages to generate in a few short weeks. The rest of your hard work cleaning and sorting your plastic waste is shipped off to other countries where a lot of it still ends up in the ocean
And now we have TerraCycle! One firm that seems to have found a way to recycle absolutely every weird plastic item imaginable! In actuality, they are collection and storage for hard to recycle plastics. It’s history repeating itself.
Recycling is not the answer. I wish people put as much energy into avoiding plastics as they do trying to recycle them.