Are biodegradable plastics the answer to the world’s problems?

When it comes to environmental issues that make it into the public sphere, plastic has become enemy number one. From growing concerns about its effects on marine biology and the global-scale health dangers that plastic pollution poses to humans, there is much at stake in the endeavour to defeat the scourge of plastic in the modern world.

According to The Economist, 380 million tonnes of plastic are produced each year. Getting rid of it has proven extremely difficult. Only 9% of the plastic produced since the 1950s has been recycled, and only 12% incinerated.

Burning plastic releases toxic chemicals, while recycling plastic effectively poses many difficulties of its own, because of the wide range of plastics that exist. The majority of plastics in the world end up in our oceans, which either chokes marine life or breaks down into smaller plastic particles to be consumed by fish, and in turn by humans – the full consequences of which have not been determined.

One possible solution that has enjoyed much attention, is the use of biodegradable plastics as an alternative to more conventional plastics, which are notorious for taking centuries to break down naturally. But is it a viable solution to the plastic problem? Although an attractive concept, biodegradable plastic might not be quite the clear-cut answer it’s made out to be.

The sobering truth about biodegradable plastics

So are biodegradable plastics better for the environment? The short answer: it’s complicated.

“Biodegradable” or “compostable” are commonly understood to mean that the material breaks down completely under certain conditions. The development of these plastics is a wonderful and important step in the journey towards a more sustainable packaging industry. But, while some biodegradable plastics can easily break down in a natural environment, such as your backyard compost heap, others need to be treated at a special composting facility. This complicates matters, because it means ensuring that the right plastics reach the right environments in order for them to break down.

With the many kinds of plastics quite literally floating about, it is hard for consumers to know which plastics need to be disposed of in which manner. Confusion is bound to arise. Richard McKinlay, Head of Circular Economy at resource recovery specialist Axion, points out that “What is described as ‘compostable’ doesn’t mean it will just break down at the side of the road”, which means that consumers need to know not only whether plastics are biodegradable, but in which conditions they will actually break down.

Wrongly disposing even of biodegradable plastics is potentially problematic. The executive director of Plastics SA, Anton Hanekom, says biodegradable plastics that wrongly end-up in the recycling stream will not break down and will “contaminate the entire stream”, rendering more material unrecyclable. The onus is therefore on manufacturers to correctly inform consumers regarding how their packaging is to be disposed of, on local governments to ensure that proper recycling infrastructures are in place, and on consumers to educate themselves about correct recycling/composting methods.

Prevention is better than cure

As stated before, biodegradable plastics are an important step in the right direction as we work towards more sustainable societies. But they aren’t going to solve our problems overnight. Each of us needs to remain mindful of how we use and dispose of plastic.

One of the best ways the prevent plastic pollution is to avoid using plastics whenever it is at all possible. Every day we use plastic packaging when it isn’t really required: When you buy two items from the store and request a plastic bag, when you buy coffee and use a disposable cup instead of a reusable one – the list goes on and on. There are just about a million ways to reduce your personal plastic consumption.

How do you cut back on your plastic use? Let us know in the comments!

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