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Biodegradable is an adjective describing a substance or an object that can be easily decomposed by living organisms such as bacterias and microbes.
In production, a product with biodegradable properties is preferred given its waste and pollution-free capabilities.
More recently, the conversation has shifted around biodegradable plastic, however, there’s a lot of confusion.
Most people think that ‘bioplastic’, ‘biodegradable’, and ‘compostable’ mean the same thing.
But there’s a huge difference between ‘biodegradable’ plastic (one that might take decades or centuries to break down) and ‘compostable’ as the only material that turns into benign waste after a matter of months in a composter.
In this article, I’ll demystify this confusing jargon and help your understanding of these issues so you can make eco-friendly choices when you shop next time.
The Problem With Plastic
From cars to food wrap and from planes to pens, you can make anything and everything from plastic.
Unquestionably, plastic is the world’s most versatile material.
However, there are some major issues with plastic.
For once, plastic is made of synthetic (artificially created) chemicals that don’t mix well with nature.
Then, once discarded, plastic becomes a big cause of pollution.
Plastic is cluttering rivers, seas, and beaches, killing fish, choking birds.
Plastics are carbon-based polymers (long-chain molecules that repeat their structures over and over) mostly made from petroleum.
Incredibly versatile – by definition, the word ‘plastic’ means flexible, the problem with plastic is that is just too good.
Ironically, while we use plastic mostly for disposable, low-value items such as food-wrap and product packaging, there’s nothing disposable about plastics.
On average, we use plastic bags for 12 minutes before getting rid of them.
Yet, it takes 500 years for a plastic bag to break down in the environment.
Getting rid of plastic is extremely difficult.
Burning plastic releases toxic chemicals such as dioxins in the atmosphere.
Collecting and recycling these toxic gases is difficult, mostly because there are many different kinds, and each gas has to be recovered via a distinctive process.
In Britain alone (one small island in a vast world), people use 8 billion disposable plastic bags each year.
If you’ve ever taken part in a beach clean, you’ll know that about 80 percent of the waste that washes up on the shore is plastic.
That includes bottles, bottle tops, and tiny odd fragments known as ‘mermaids’ tears’.
We’re making most plastic from oil — estimated that 200,000 barrels of oil are used each day to make plastic packaging for the United States alone.
Figuratively speaking, we’re drowning in plastic.
Biodegradable Plastic – A Better Alternative?
Thankfully, the public has begun to demand plastic alternatives that are environmentally friendly and biodegrade with ease.
Biodegradable means the plastic will degrade in contact with water, sun, or oxygen and break down into oxygen, carbon dioxide, and biomass.
‘Environmentally friendly’ plastic falls into three categories:
- Bioplastics: Made from natural materials such as corn starch.
- Biodegradable plastics: Made from traditional petrochemicals engineered to break down – as described above.
- Eco/recycled plastics: Regular plastics re-made from recycled plastics rather than raw petrochemicals.
We’ll look at each of these in turn.
The theory behind bioplastics is simple: if we could make plastics from nature-friendly chemicals, they’d break down with ease when we get rid of them.
The most familiar bioplastics are made from natural materials such as corn starch and sold under brand names as EverCorn™ and NatureWorks.
Some bioplastics look virtually indistinguishable from traditional petrochemical plastics. Polylactide acid (PLA) looks and behaves like polyethene and polypropylene and is widely used to make food containers.
According to NatureWorks, making PLA saves two-thirds of the energy needed to make traditional plastics.
Unlike traditional plastics and biodegradable plastics, bioplastics do not increase the carbon dioxide levels when they break down.
That’s because the plants used to make them absorb the same amount of carbon dioxide in return.
What About Greenhouse Gases?
PLA, for example, produces almost 70 percent lesser greenhouse gases when it degrades in landfills.
Another good thing about bioplastics is that they’re compostable: they decay into natural materials that blend harmlessly with soil.
So much so, that some bioplastics will break down in a matter of weeks.
Made of cornstarch, these plastics absorb water and swell up, causing the bioplastic to break apart into small fragments that bacteria can digest more readily.
Unfortunately, not all bioplastics compost thoroughly. Even worse, some leave toxic residues or plastic fragments behind.
Equally, some will break down only at high temperatures in industrial-scale composters or digesters.
Or, in biologically active landfills (also called bioreactor landfills), rather than in ordinary home compost heaps and conventional landfills.
If you’re in the habit of reading what supermarkets print on their plastic bags, you may have noticed a lot of environmentally friendly statements appearing over the last few years.
Some supermarkets have begun using photodegradable and oxydegradable plastic in their shopping bags.
As the name suggests, these biodegradable plastics contain additives that cause them to decay faster in the presence of light, oxygen, moisture, and heat.
Unlike bioplastics, biodegradable plastics are made of ordinary (petrochemical) plastics and don’t break down into harmless substances.
True, sometimes they leave behind some toxic residues which makes them (but not always) unsuitable for composting.
Biodegradable plastics sound great. Yet, these are not without problems.
With growing doubts over their environmental benefit, in 2014, members of the European Parliament tried to ban oxydegradable plastics.
Although that proposal was rejected, the attempt lead to detailed studies of oxydegradable plastics confirming that these plastics are not completely composted and don’t break down in landfills.
Even worse, in the oceans, as the water is too cold to break down biodegradable plastics, these plastics will float forever.
In time, they do break down, producing tiny plastic fragments harmful to marine life.
One neat solution to the problem of plastic disposal is to recycle old plastic materials into new ones.
The practice got traction in fashion, thanks to parley for the oceans and other similar agencies.
However, there are two problems with recycled plastics:
- First, recycled plastic can’t be used to make the same items again. For example, old recycled coca-cola plastic bottles can’t be turned into new plastic bottles as, during the regeneration process, the initial plastic loses some of its properties.
- Second, recycled plastics are not necessarily better for the environment. Unless re-made by saving energy and water – and thus contributing to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.
Keeping waste out of a landfill and turning it into new things is a great idea.
But when it takes a higher amount of energy to collect and recycle the plastic, compared to making new plastic, that’s not eco-friendly but merely ridiculous.
Biodegradable Plastic: Good or Bad?
Anything that helps humankind solve the plastics problem has to be a good thing, right?
Unfortunately, environmental issues are never quite so simple.
Actions that seem to help the planet in distinct ways sometimes have significant drawbacks and can do damage in other ways.
It’s important to see things in the round to understand whether “environmentally friendly” things are doing more harm than good.
Bioplastics and biodegradable plastics have long been controversial.
Manufacturers like to portray them as a magic-bullet solution to the problem of plastics that won’t go away.
Bioplastics, for example, are touted as saving 30–80 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions you’d get from standard plastics and they can give food a longer shelf-life in stores.
Here are some of the drawbacks:
To begin with, some biodegradable plastics decompose in landfills, they produce methane, a greenhouse gas that adds to the problem of global warming.
Biodegradable plastics and bioplastics don’t always readily decompose.
Some need exposure to UV (ultraviolet) light or relatively high temperatures and, in some conditions, can still take many years to break down.
Even then, they may leave behind micro-fragments or toxic residues.
Also, bioplastics made from plants such as corn and maize are no longer used to grow food but plastic instead.
By 2014, almost a quarter of US grain production was expected to shift to biofuels and bioplastics production.
Taking more agricultural land out of production could cause a significant rise in food prices that would hit the poorest people hardest.
Growing crops to make bioplastics comes with the usual environmental impacts of intensive agriculture.
This includes greenhouse emissions from the petroleum needed to fuel farm machinery and water pollution caused by runoff from the land where fertilizers are used in industrial quantities.
In some cases, these indirect impacts from “growing” bioplastics are greater than if we simply made plastics from petroleum in the first place.
Moreover, some bioplastics, such as PLA, are made from genetically modified corn.
Some environmentalists consider GM (genetically modified) crops to be inherently harmful to the environment, though others disagree.
Finally, bioplastics and biodegradable plastics cannot be easily recycled.
To most people, PLA looks very similar to PET (polyethene terephthalate) but, if the two are mixed up in a recycling bin, the whole collection becomes impossible to recycle.
There are fears that increasing use of PLA may undermine existing efforts to recycle plastics.
You might not realize, but plastic, a petroleum-based product, is the most used material in the fashion industry right now.
In fashion, plastics are turned into many types of fabrics such as organza, nylon, lycra, sequins, even ‘vegan leather’ and vegan fur.
However, PVC’s and plastic-based fabrics are polluting and unsustainable.
As they are non-biodegradable, these materials have a profound negative impact on animal welfare and the environment.
Plastic fabrics are synthetic polymers that emit persistent, toxic, and bio-accumulative chemicals, known to disrupt hormone balance and cause cancer.
Moreover, plastic fabrics can stay in the environment for hundreds of years, clogging up ecosystems such as oceans, rivers, and soils with chemical pollution.
But, there is good news.
Examples Of Biodegradable Materials
We are in the age of smart, multifunctional, and biodegradable fashion.
Rachel Clowes, a London-based embroidery and print designer, has created a new type of sequin that biodegrades at the end of its fashion lifetime.
Called ‘bio-sequins’, Rachel’s biodegradable invention sparkle for a few wears and then biodegrade safely.
“Plastic sequins shimmer for a few hours on the dance floor, only to end up in a landfill, lying there for centuries if not more,” says Clowes.
Clowes’s quest to create a biodegradable fabric that could solve fashion’s waste and pollution problem materialized into organic bio-sequins that dissolve in boiling water.
The bright, shiny bio-sequins are made from water, fruit glycerine, starch, and natural dye and have the rigidity and flexibility of conventional plastic.
Once dissolved, the biodegradable fabric sequins turn into a solution that can be composted.
Moreover, the solution feeds plants and crops by returning the nutrients found in the natural dye and fruit glycerine back to the environment.
Clowes’ next advent is a biodegradable fabric sequin made from PLA (polylactic acid), a biodegradable polymer made from plants and bread waste, often used in biodegradable packaging.
Without Impacting Style
The biodegradable fabric sequin could last a lifetime in the wardrobe but breaks down with ease when exposed to a microbial environment such as compost-rich soil.
With the understanding that throwaway fashion will never go away, Rachel’s invention of an environmentally friendly and biodegradable fabric could finally put an end to fashion waste and pollution without affecting the aesthetics.
Other designers, such as Solve, launched fully biodegradable lines, created in response to fast fashion.
Clothes From Eucalyptus
Called Omdane, the collection consists of three 100 percent biodegradable items of clothing if put in compost.
But, the more interesting part comes from their versatility, as each garment can be converted into ten different fashion styles.
Made from 100 percent Tencel Lyocell fiber, a cellulosic fiber derived from the Eucalyptus tree, Omdanne clothes absorb body moisture and release on to the outside.
Thus, the garments stay fresher for much longer.
The Tencel Lyocell fiber comes from sustainably managed forests in Europe.
And, it is processed in a close-looped system, without harmful chemicals, toxic solvents, or toxic dyes.
Biodegradable – Decomposed Within A Month
The biodegradability of the garments was tested by placing them in containers filled with soil, and after a month, the fabric was almost wholly biodegraded.
Omdanne collection consists of three pieces and each of them can transform into over ten distinct styles.
The aim was to stop fashion buyers from spending on clothes that they might never wear.
Moreover, thanks to the magnet-based design, the wearer has endless possibilities for how to wear and match the clothes.
Biodegradable Clothes From Paper
Then, there’s a new wave of emerging fashion designers, such as Lee Sun, looking at materials with biodegradable capabilities to fight against waste and overconsumption.
A graduate of Eindhoven’s Design Academy, Lee Sun has created ‘Consumption of Heritage’
“My collection is based on three core principles: ephemerality, sustainability, and disposability.” said Lee.
The six-piece fashion collection is made from torn and hand-rolled traditional Korean Hansan Mosi fabric and Hanji paper.
Sun Lee’s biodegradable collection seeks to address the growing environmental issues and waste caused by the fashion industry.
“My collection is also an invitation to reflect on the current state of fashion and formulate new solutions for sustainable fashion.”
Sustainable Fashion Collection
The modular pieces are layered over one another and can be easily recycled.
Renowned for its durability, insulation, and ventilation properties, Hanji paper is made by turning mulberry tree bark into pulp.
Then, Hibiscus plant sticky sap is added to the mixture and laid out into sheets on a bamboo screen.
The Hanji paper was then printed with Korean lettering and rolled into cords that were then woven together to create the material used in the Ji-Seung Vest, named after the process of weaving the paper.
“Thanks to the material I have used in this collection – Hanji paper is sustainable, disposable and easily recyclable – each piece can be thrown away and still be more sustainable than fast fashion.”
The Biodegradable Mars Boot
But, the most amazing biodegradable fashion project of all must be this one.
When in 2016, designer Liz Ciokajlo was commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art in New York to ‘revisit’ the Moon Boot used by the Apollo astronauts on the Moon, she wanted a bio-material that would work in a post-plastic age.
Our generation’s space travel obsession is not the Moon but Mars, the red planet, she thought.
“Mars has always been a place where you can dream. It is a place where you can re-imagine how to live on Earth,” says Ciokajlo.
Ciokajlo’s material of choice was mycelium and had already attracted the attention of NASA and ESA (European Space Agency) engineers.
If you imagine that mushrooms are the ‘fruits’ of the fungus, mycelium could be regarded as its roots or stems.
The material is biodegradable, just like wood.
But, Mycelium has other amazing properties.
It is a great ‘recycler’, as it feeds off a substrate (like sawdust or agricultural waste) to create more material.
It has the potential of limitless growth – in the right conditions.
Moreover, it can endure higher pressure than even concrete without breaking.
And finally, mycelium is a known insulator, fire-retardant, and provides radiation protection on space missions.
If NASA and ESA’s experiments are successful, a small group of fungus spores could provide the starting point for a living, a natural settlement on Mars.
From a handful of spores, they could replicate and find dozens of uses for astronauts walking around the red planet.
With the advent of biotechnology, the future looks more biodegradable than ever.
It allows us to finally end the reign of plastic, and move to a new era of sustainable development.
If you have any examples of biodegradable fashion, feel free to share them with us.
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