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What Is Biodegradable Plastic?
Unfortunately, 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.
For that, we have demystified all this confusing jargon known to hinder your understanding of these issues and 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 per cent 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 Possible 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 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.
PLA, for example, produces almost 70 per cent 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 per cent of the greenhouse gas emissions you’d get from standard plastics and they can give food 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 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 fertilisers 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.
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