Biodegradable Plastics: Are They Worth It?
Have you ever used biodegradable plastics?
I've often thought about ways to transform our current throw-away lifestyle into one that more adequately promotes well-being, both for us and the Earth. Recycling is one way, but it would be better if we could supplement that with something that doesn't put a load on the system.
When pondering what the #1 problem item might be, it wasn't hard to come up with plastic products, often so unbiodegradable that it can take a plastic bag up to 500 years to decompose in a landfill. Thinking of the thicker plastics is pretty depressing, and realistically, it's not implausible to say that many of these will basically never decompose; not for thousands of years; not for millennia. Think of that!
There's no excuse, in these days of amazing technology, to not at least look for alternatives to the way we're doing things. Chances are, we'll find that alternatives do actually exist, and are easier to implement than we had imagined.
This got me looking for any household alternatives that I could use to help curb the amount of waste I was permanently dumping on posterity (pun intended.) There are many things we cannot change or take back, but there are also many things we can do, and should be aware of.
I came across compostable, biodegradable, green-friendly household products while searching online a few years ago. Since then, they have gained some popularity at Whole Foods and Co-Op markets across the US, but we can do more: we can easily start implementing this green lifestyle at home.
The Biodegradable Basics
Most paper, wood, and other natural products are biodegradable and compostable, so we won't get into that here. But a newer, less-known medium is bioplastics.
Bioplastics are plastics made of renewable biological ingredients, like corn starch, pea starch, and vegetable oils. Certain types are made to biodegrade, and these can be broken down, depending on how they're manufactured, in aerobic (oxygen-rich) or anaerobic (oxygen-free) environments.
The completely biodegradable types are the starch-based and cellulose-based plastics:
- Starch-based - this is the most common type of bioplastic that is biodegradable (50% of the bioplastics market.) It's most often used for making biodegradable cutlery, straws, plastic bags, packing peanuts, pop bottles, and food packaging. For industrial applications, the starch is blended with biodegradable polyesters, such as polycaprolactone and polybutylene adipate-co-terephthalate (Ecoflex.) These blends are fully compostable and biodegradable.
- Cellulose-based - cellulose is a polysaccharide (carbohydrate), and these plastics make things like natural cellulose kitchen sponges, for example.
The non-biodegradable bioplastics are actually partially biodegradable, but leave tiny fragments of petro-plastic behind as well. Manufacturers claim they're biodegradable, but for all intents and purposes, they are not:
- Polylactic (PLA) - is a clear plastic made from cane sugar or glucose. This type of plastic is easy to process on existing equipment, and is used for producing moulds, bottles, and cups.
- Poly-3-hydroxybutyrate (PHB) - this type of biodegradable plastic is produced when bacteria process waste water, corn starch, or glucose. Its plastic properties are similar to polyproplyene, but manufacturers try to claim it's fully biodegradable.
- Polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA) - commonly used in the medical industry, these non-biodegradable plastics are formed in a natural process when bacteria ferment sugars or fats.
- Ensure the products you buy do not contain oxo-plastics or any petroleum-based plastics, which do not fully degrade
- Make sure to ask the supplier or manufacturer if their products meet the ASTM D6400 guidelines for compostability and/or the ASTM D6868 guidelines for biodegradable plastics
- Look for the Compostable label (at right) if in the US. This ensures a product is certified compostable and biodegradable by Biodegradable Products International, who hold manufacturers to scientifically-based standards for compostable and biodegradable materials
- Many suppliers and manufacturers include the above information on their own, since they're aware of the growing trend of informed consumers. To make it easier, just avoid anything that contains these words:
The Opposition To Bioplastics
Countless articles claim that releasing bioplastics into landfills does more harm than good. However, a lot of this is based on a misinformed, or uninformed, consumer.
Since these biodegradable products degrade quickly, even in an anaerobic (oxygen-free) environment like a landfill, they produce more methane gas than if they degraded more slowly.
Some landfills do not use or burn the methane off, so the gases are released into the atmosphere. Methane is a greenhouse gas which, many scientists believe, contributes to climate change.
However, the majority of landfills in the US capture the methane to use as clean, inexpensive fuels that power homes, buildings, and vehicles. It's a growing alternative energy source both in the US and abroad.
Another argument is that the only truly biodegradable plastics cannot contain any petrochemicals. Most of the opposition to biodegradable plastics surrounds this issue, and a lack of knowledge on the part of consumers.
Many manufacturers claim their oxo-plastics are biodegradable, but they really just break up into tiny pieces of petro-plastic that never degrade. Make sure you look for the types of natural bioplastics listed above. When in doubt go with starch-based bioplastics, many of which are degradable in just water.
When we live in a world being absolutely destroyed by plastics that never degrade, any small step toward sustainability and green living is a step in the right direction. Educate yourself and make informed decisions.
Biodegradable Household Products
It's wonderful to see how starch- and cellulose-based biodegradable products are starting to work their way into mainstream manufacturing and packaging industries. We can help the environment, and lessen the load on landfills, if we choose to buy products from companies that push biodegradable packaging for their products. Start looking around and you may be surprised.
Just about anything made out of "common" plastics is probably also available in biodegradable form.
If you want to be a little more proactive, you can seek these biodegradable products out. If you have a Whole Foods or Co-Op in your area, that's a great place to start, but all of this is easily available online as well:
- Bowls, Plates, Straws, Cutlery, Hot cups, Cold cups, Food trays, Food containers, Storage containers, Sandwich bags, Garbage bags, Compost bags, Pet waste bags, Shopping bags, Optical glasses, Rain ponchos, Hair brushes, Sunglasses, Plant pots, Dish soap, Golf tees, Watches, Diapers, Combs, Tables, Chairs, Shoes, Pens, Paint
It's hard to say if biodegradable plastics will stick around, or if they are just a phase in our quest to go green. But what's clear is that they supplement our only choice right now, which is either to recycle or to abstain from buying in the first place.
Bioplastics give us more options, and in this age of the throw-away lifestyle, that can be very helpful. If an uninformed public inadvertently buys petro-laced bioplastics, however, that might eventually spell the end of these useful products.
Make Your Own Starch Bioplastic In The Microwave
- 1 Tbsp water
- 1 Tbsp corn starch
- 3 drops vegetable oil
- Optional food coloring
- Plastic bag
- Microwave-safe plate
- Combine water, corn starch, oil, and food coloring (if you want it) in the plastic bag
- Mix by smooshing the sides of the bag to create a thickened paste
- Place on the plate and microwave for no more than 20 seconds on high
- Carefully remove the plate and let cool for 30 seconds or until the plastic is pliable
- Shape the plastic into a ball or mould it into a shape
Make Your Own Starch Bioplastic On The Stove
- 4 Tbsp water
- 1 Tbsp corn (or tapioca) starch
- 1 tsp vegetable glycerin
- 1 tsp vinegar
- Aluminum foil for cooling the plastic
- Pot or pan
- Silicone spatula
- Combine the water, corn (or tapioca) starch, glycerin, and vinegar in the pot or pan
- Mix well, then place on the stove
- Turn heat to low and stir constantly until mixture is clear, bubbly, and thickened
- Remove from heat and pour onto foil to cool
- After a few minutes you can put it in a mould or shape it into different shapes
What Do You Do To Help The Environment?
- Promotional Products
- Food Service Supplier
- Biodegradable Products
- Biodegradable Products Institute
- Bioplastics Council
- Database Of Useful Links
- Biodegradable Plastic Wiki
- Do Bioplastics Represent The Solution For The Future?