Is it really biodegradable?
The word Biodegradable is booming and right up there with trending words like ‘organic’ or ‘fair trade’. Nowadays, the demand for sustainable products is larger than ever before and so is the scrutiny on companies to act eco-consciously. So, in an era where customers hold an enormous amount of power in the commercial landscape, they get whatever they say they desire from companies, as these last ones don’t want to end up being the centre of a public outrage and damage their reputation. Many people have in fact started looking at all things bio as a hopeful solution to plastic consumption. However, despite the general enthusiasm about the topic, we are now witnessing a change regarding the conversation around bioplastics and their biodegradability..
First of all, bioplastic or bio-based plastics are not necessarily biodegradable and do not have to be bio-based, but can also be fossil fuel based. Hence, biodegradable is not a good term to use when describing these materials, because even if they are technically biodegradable, they may only do so under very specific conditions that are not necessarily sustainable for the environment in the long run. Instead, if we want to look at packaging that can actually biodegrade, then we should focus our attention and buying behaviour to compostable packaging.
The compostable packaging can either be ‘home compostable’ which is usually marked by a certification, or compostable only in industrial facilities. A lot of biodegradable or compostable packaging is based on PLA or polylactic acid, which is only industrially compostable and will not degrade in your garden compost heap or if you leave it lying around in nature. Furthermore, in most countries, there is no developed infrastructure for collecting and treating compostable plastics. This means that, in most cases, compostable plastics will be sent to landfill or incinerated. On top of that, if they enter plastic recycling streams, they could destroy a whole batch of recycled plastic.
In general, it’s fair to say that fully compostable plastics generally have a lower carbon impact and are better for the environment, although we may never know the true environmental impacts of this material. So, amidst the marketing hype and confusing terms, the three things to look out for when wanting to dispose of these types of packaging are the following:
- Looking for certified home compostable materials that you can compost at home and making sure these only go in the proper compost bins.
- Looking for materials with a certified high bio-based content, which are likely to have a lower carbon impact.
- if it isn’t home compostable, it can likely only go in your residual or general waste bin and not in the recycling bin.
The complexity of the topic of bioplastics and the terms surrounding them is something that most customers are unaware of and unfortunately most people believe they are buying something that is good for the environment and far from the traditional conception of ‘plastics’.
As well as spreading the word and creating awareness about bioplastics and how to recycle them, we want to shed light on the long way we still have to go in order to find a permanent solution to a world with less plastic in it.
Although it would be nice to see a circular economy in place for all plastics, where there is a perpetual cycle in which all plastics are recycled or recovered at the end of their life and made into new products or packaging again, it would also be great to see dedicated collection systems and recycling facilities for plastics being established in every country. Only this way, we can truly close the loop on plastics and bioplastics.
Information sourced on thecircularlaboratory.com
Featured image: sourced on canva.com
Image 1: Photo by Marcell Viragh on Unsplash
Image 2: Photo by Sigmund on Unsplash