The uncomfortable truth about biodegradable plastics

With the earth's oceans choking on plastic waste, turning to biodegradable plastic appears to be a perfect solution. But what is the real truth about 'bioplastics' and are they really what they claim?

The UN's top environmental scientist has issued a startling warning about biodegradable plastic water bottles and shopping bags, claiming it is a false solution for a planet grappling with plastic pollution. 

With a truckload of plastic waste being dumped into our oceans every hour,  plastic waste has become a global issue. This waste often ends up contaminating our waterways, spread by currents to oceans from the Atlantic to the Antarctic and creating huge trash 'islands' in the middle of pristine oceans that can be as large as the state of Texas. 

There are still many unanswered questions about biodegradable plastic and just how good they are for the environment. How long does it take for biodegradable plastics to decompose? What is the best way to dispose of them? How do biodegradable plastics actually work? 

 

"It’s well-intentioned but wrong. A lot of plastics labelled biodegradable, like shopping bags, will only break down in temperatures of 50C and that is not the ocean. They are also not buoyant, so they’re going to sink, so they’re not going to be exposed to UV and break down."

 

Green alternatives have positioned themselves as a sustainable alternative to traditional plastics that can take more than 450 years to break down. But they may not be exactly what they seem. Jacqueline McGlade, the chief environmental scientist at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) doesn't seem to think so.

“It’s well-intentioned but wrong. A lot of plastics labelled biodegradable, like shopping bags, will only break down in temperatures of 50C and that is not the ocean. They are also not buoyant, so they’re going to sink, so they’re not going to be exposed to UV and break down,” she said.

 

"Biodegradable plastics require long-term exposure to high-temperatures (around 122F, or 50C), like those found in large municipal composters, to actually break down. Those conditions are not found very often in nature, and especially not in the oceans."

 

The heart of the issue comes down to how biodegradable bags actually break down. A UNEP report notes "biodegradable plastics require long-term exposure to high-temperatures (around 122F, or 50C), like those found in large municipal composters, to actually break down. Those conditions are not found very often in nature, and especially not in the oceans.” 

Quite simply, plastics marked as biodegradable do not degrade rapidly in the ocean and for the most part, not even in commercial facilities. Most cities compost yard waste but only a handful of sites, just 100 in the entire United States will accept 'biodegradable' plastics.

To make things worse, some of the additives that help make biodegradable plastics break down also make it harder to recycle and are potentially harmful to the natural environment. 

The real answer is to REDUCE. Reuse and Recycle. In that order. As responsible consumers, it is imperative to prevent this trash entering the ecosystem to begin with. The choices we make in the materials we use have a lasting effect. Be the change in your world and move away from plastic towards ecologically friendly materials today. 


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