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.
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?