Is Biodegradable Plastic Better?
The production of so-called ‘bioplastics’ or biodegradable plastics is currently very low: estimated at around 4 million tonnes per year (which would be just over one percent of global plastics production).
‘Biodegradable’ plastic is typically defined as plastics which break down at faster rates than standard plastics. However, this broad definition means the boundary of what constitutes biodegradable plastics is often intensely debated. Biodegradability can in some cases be claimed simply because break down is accelerated (without necessitating fast degradation).
One example of this is ‘oxo-degradable plastics’: plastics (such as polyethylene) with additives which accelerate the oxidation process (causing them to break down faster). In essence, however, all this does is break the plastics down into microplastics.
This has been the case with several so-called biodegradable plastics: they are proven to break down faster under specific environmental conditions (which may not actually reflect the normal environment), but may not be effectively degradable under natural conditions. The labels of ‘biodegradable’, ‘bio-based’, ‘compostable’, are therefore often claimed and used in marketing contexts, with little understanding for consumers on what these definitions mean in practice.
A key current challenge of biodegradable plastics is that they tend to need particular waste management methods which are not always widely available. They usually need to be separated from the traditional recycling stream (which can be difficult and expensive), and have to go to specific compostable facilities. This doesn’t mean such methods are unfeasible, but could be additional economic cost especially if they’re in the waste stream at low concentrations, and would take significant work in terms of infrastructure redesign.
In 2015, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) published a report on the misconceptions, concerns and impacts of biodegradable plastics.30 It concluded that: “the adoption of plastic products labelled as ‘biodegradable’ will not bring about a significant decrease either in the quantity of plastic entering the ocean or the risk of physical and chemical impacts on the marine environment, on the balance of current scientific evidence.”
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