Degradable Plastic: Is this a dead end?

Judging by social media everyone is upset with plastic – especially single use plastic. The new cry is let’s have compostable plastic. But is this a dead end street?

Concerned individuals are starting to make their voices heard and are resisting using plastic wherever possible. More consumers are refusing to accept plastic bags at the till or plastic straws when drinking. More consumers are using reusable bags to carry their purchases and are becoming more discerning about their choices if it involves plastic packaging.

Changing from plastic to “biodegradable plastic” is like switching from smoking to vaping

Retailers and produces are aware of this trend and responding, some by offering “biodegradable” plastic packets. Consumers feel satisfied that by using these are they helping the war on plastic. I submit that this course of action is like switching from smoking to vaping; you are still doing harm, but in another, less obvious, way.

Some containers are made entirely of materials derived from organic ie non plastic material such as corn starch. And these are biodegradable. Others – and this is the majority – are made from plastic polymers to which an additive is added to make it break down quicker. So now the plastic breaks down in 6 months instead of months or years. Which accelerates the rate at which we are depositing nano particles of plastic in our environment.

Changing from standard plastic to “biodegradable” plastic simply gives us nano plastic quicker

The debate about compostable bags has only just started as some retailers have bought into this idea and are promoting it. There are international standards and some certifications for biodegradable and compostable products. But these are too technical for most consumers to understand. For another perspective one can talk to the persons who have to deal with the biodegradable plastics at their end of life; namely the composters.

Without exception they are against any form of plastic in the material which they compost. Plastic does not break down at the same rate as the rest of the material resulting in plastic having to be screened out and carted away, an additional operation and cost. It also gums up the blades and pipes of machines. At the end of the process the resulting compost will probably not be rated as organic compost. Lastly, there is the difficulty of separating a compostable plastic bag from a non compostable bag. In theory it may be easy but once the bag is covered in muck and slime it is anything but.

So where to from here? The ideal would be to ban all carbon based products immediately and deal with the plastic headache. That, however, will never happen so we have to find a way of managing the plastic pollution until the world finds a suitable substitute. I believe, with respect, that it is better to slowly reduce our dependence on plastic by eliminating plastic items altogether. Using so called degradable plastic may be perpetuating the problem in a lesser and less obnoxious form but plastic is still being used.

The best solution is eliminating plastic completely

Fortunately this is where the consumer, who has the ultimate say in this war, comes in. The consumer can refuse to accept any plastic bag – degradable or not – and use his or her own bag. Just keep a paper or material bag in the car, this is what is done in many European countries. Where possible select items which are not packaged in plastic but paper instead. And most importantly tell the sales person why you are doing this. I have noticed that, nowadays, when I refuse the offer of a plastic bag the teller immediately understands why. Help get the message through to senior management, the suppliers and manufacturers. They can always be counted on to do what is good for their pockets.

If we all start slowly eliminating plastic from our lives – one item at a time – we will eventually get rid of the stuff.

Recycle Reg
Smart Waste

Picture: GreenPeace