Biodegradable Plastic: The Solution to Pollution?

Plastic products are ubiquitous in today’s world. But what happens to these products when they are discarded? It’s common knowledge that ordinary plastic either doesn’t biodegrade or takes a very long time to do so. This has made plastic pollution an increasingly troubling problem. It looks ugly and kills animals which mistakenly ingest it – and then there’s the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Amid growing concerns about plastic pollution, some companies have switched over to biodegradable plastics. But are these really a solution, or do we need to move away from plastics altogether?

Different types of biodegradable plastic

To answer this question, we need to distinguish between bioplastics and biodegradable plastic. Bioplastics are typically made of natural substances, with cornstarch being one of the most commonly used materials. These types of bioplastics are fully compostable, and some take only weeks to break down. Manufacturers claim that these plastics are carbon neutral and take less energy to produce than conventional plastics.

Biodegradable plastics, on the other hand, are just conventional plastics with chemicals added to help them break down. If you get a carrier bag from the supermarket which claims to be biodegradable, it’s probably made of these materials.

Biodegradable plastics are far from perfect. They only break down in the presence of light and oxygen, and the substances they break down into are not usually environmentally-friendly. Additionally, we can’t usually compost these plastics, as the residues that remain may be toxic. Often, they also release the greenhouse gas methane as they break down.

The solution?

Biodegradable plastic has some obvious drawbacks. This makes it difficult to consider it a solution to plastic pollution. But bioplastics seem more promising. If they biodegrade into harmless substances, then what’s the problem?

Well, it’s not quite that simple. The trouble is, our planet’s resources are finite. To produce bioplastics, we have to grow crops. But if we devote our land and resources to this, we’ll have less left over for growing food. The growing demand for biofuels is also contributing to this problem. Worryingly, it could lead to an increase in food prices, which could be disastrous for those who already struggle to feed their families.

Additionally, the intensive farming practices used to grow these crops are themselves environmentally destructive. For example, farm machinery produces large quantities of greenhouse gases, whilst fertilisers can contaminate land and water.

A change in mindset

I wrote a post over a year ago called ‘Our Wasteful Mindset and Disposable Culture’. Our continued attempts to make disposable plastics which are somehow environmentally-friendly are a prime example of this mindset.

Bioplastics may be an improvement over conventional plastics, but we can do better. We need to move away from disposable and single-use products altogether. These products will always be unsustainable, no matter what we make them out of or how readily they decompose.

In a world where disposables are so ubiquitous, it’s near impossible to avoid them completely. But it isn’t hard to take reusable cotton bags shopping, or choose loose fruit and veg instead of packaged.

I believe zero-waste living is the future, though I understand how hard it can be. My current circumstances make it almost impossible for me to be zero-waste. But I’m still doing what I can. Change will not happen unless we demand it. Will you?

plastic-free living with ECOlunchbox

4 comments / Add your comment below

    1. I am researching replacements for existing non biodegradable Polymers with a polymer that can biodegrade within 6 months not only in landfills but in aquatic sea-life and water. Does the technology exist to support a ban on all polymers that will not adhere to this regulation within 24 months of passage? What other byproducts are a result of the degrading of the replacement polymer such as methane, water, co2 and the possible hazards associated with them. I agree with your opinion that the ultimate answer is to reuse however there is a lot of possible solutions using sugar and corn syrup which used to be used in soft drinks etc. I much rather see that in plastic bags and have a few fat turtles than wait for the ultimate solution. Please let me know your thoughts on these issues.

      Mark Richmond
      602 679 1699

  1. It’s an excellent article on biodegradable plastic. Biodegradable plastic can break down but still, we think on the drawbacks which mentioned in the article. Ultimately it is realized that zero waste living in the future is very hard and we must try to avoid things which can produce pollution.

  2. Some companies have been using Carbon blockers that atrract bacteria eating enzymes in order to create a plastic that is biodegradable in land fills and possibly in the ocean. Eco Pure claims to have a blocker that promotes bacteria growth creating a biodegradable plastic in both land fills and oceans. They claim that they can even make clothes out of it. Imagine still have methane bio product but really would like to know if animals could break down the plastic in their digestive system?

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