Biodegradable Plastics? Do they work?

2019 has been the year of plastic pushback. From the #stopsucking no straw movement to the prominence of zero-waste activists, getting rid of plastic pollution has clearly been a part of the larger climate activist movement going on around the world. But what about biodegradable plastics? Are they the solution to the plastic crisis? Is the technology there yet? Today we’re going to take a look into what’s going on with biodegradable plastics.

Unfortunately, the world is inundated with plastic right now. Scientists have estimated that since the 1950s, we’ve make 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic total, with the past thirteen years seeing a major increase in plastic use. Furthermore, only about 9% of that plastic has been recycled, and so the vast majority of that plastic is going to be around for hundreds of years to come. This plastic is starting to enter into the foodchain, but it’s not digestible of course and so what happens is an animal that’s eaten plastic junk may get their insides clogged up, or feel constantly too-full to eat while not getting any nutrition and starve to death. Whales and dolphins have been found dead or dying off the coastlines simply from eating plastic. Even stranger, it seems that it is now raining plastic tool. Micro-fibres are small bits of plastic fiber that come off every time you wash a plastic-based piece of clothing, and apparently these are small enough to get caught up in the water cycle and rain down on the rockies. Clearly we are reaching crisis levels of plastic pollution.

But what if you could make a plastic that breaks down? Multiple companies are now proposing degradable plastics that’ll break down instead of staying in our environment for years at a time. Sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? Unfortunately it largely is. A study at the University of Plymouth has found that many biodegradable plastics don’t actually degrade that much at all, with one plastic bag still being in good enough to carry groceries after three years in the ground. The exact issue with each biodegradable plastic depends on the specific type of plastic used, but all so far available on the market have major issues. Some plastics require industrial-sized composting facilities to break down, or require a second “processing” in order to degrade properly. Some simply seem to take too long to degrade, and so aren’t really that much different than normal plastic litter for the time being. Finally, the ones that do break down can simply become microplastics instead of a true compost, which just shifts the problem instead of solving it. Bioplastics, or plastics made from plants, can be an alternative to both conventional plastic and biodegradable plastic, but these still have their problems. A study from the University of Pittsburgh estimates that it causes more pollution to make bioplastics than is saved by using them. Another big issue with bioplastics is that most available are made of corn, and using a food product to replace plastic could skyrocket the price of corn with disastrous results.

So what is the solution then? The clear solution to the plastic crisis is to limit plastics altogether. In the reduce, reuse, recycle slogan, there is a very good reason reduce and reuse are placed first. The plastic crisis is not going to be solved by using the same amount of single-use plastic but switching the plastic out with something better. That still has the same the same disposability mindset that got us into the crisis to begin with. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t encourage the development of a better, more sustainable plastic of course, but we also can’t rely on it as a crutch while we change nothing in the system that created our current environmental crisis. If you want to get involved in changing the plastic pollution crisis one of the best things you can do is start following tips from zero-waste lifestyle people like Zero Waste Home’s Bea Johnson, The Rogue Ginger’s Erin Rhodes, and Trash is for Tossers’ Lauren Singer. They are filled with tips on all the little ways you can reduce the amount of plastic pollution in your life, because at the end of the day everyone making small changes results in a huge change collectively.

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