You may have noticed 2019 was the year of biodegradable plastic (along with JLo and Beyond Burgers).
Green-conscious brands pat themselves on the back for offering one-use containers they claimed would one day melt back into the ground from whence they came.
And we pat ourselves on the back for believing we, too, were cutting good ol’ Mother Earth a break by buying them.
Oh, how naïve we were.
Here’s the deal: technically, yes, those plastics (also known as Polyactic or PLA plastic) are hypothetically biodegradable under optimal conditions, but the likelihood of them actually breaking down is slim to none and waste management services are advising consumers to just dump them in the garbage.
Yeah, that’s right, not the compost. Not the recycling.
Okay, but wtf?
The City of Toronto explains that neither the organics stream nor the recycling stream can handle PLA plastic.
It’s not made of the same stuff as other plastics—it’s starch- rather than oil-based—so it can’t be processed and reused along with its similar-looking non-biodegradable compadres.
Plus, since it’s so similar-looking to regular plastic, it either gets sorted out of organic waste because they can’t tell the difference or sorted out later in the process because it doesn’t decompose as fast.
So, are they at least better when they end up in the ocean? According to BBC Future, maybe not.
While they’ll technically “break down,” it’s hard to tell if they’re degrading into their molecular components (like food waste does) or just breaking into smaller pieces and dispersing the waste.
So what the heck is the point?
First of all, producing PLAs is mostly better for the environment.
Since they’re not made from traditional fossil fuels, they don’t emit toxic chemicals when burned (which is inevitable).
However, there is some confusion over the exact size of the carbon footprint since products often use GMO corn grown with harmful pesticides.
When it comes to disposal, PLAs are still relatively new, so the industry needs to play catch-up.
BBC Future outlines how we need a system that treats these plastics differently (starting with labeling) so they’ll actually be disposed of and ~composted~ responsibly.
Some companies that know the limitations of using PLAs are doing what they can to make sure they’re not going straight to landfills.
Mad Radish in Ontario told The Loop in a statement that they make sure all PLA containers disposed of in their stores are sent to appropriate processing plants with the facilities to break them down.
The Bottom Line
For now, all those biodegradable plastics need to head straight to your garbage bin.
The plus side is: they might biodegrade in a landfill (though the sun and heat conditions need to be optimal) and at least they weren’t as toxic as the alternative to make.
In the future, we might be able to process these plastics, but they need to be very clearly labeled and systems need to be put in place to dispose of them responsibly.
Published on theloop.ca
- Michael Laurier, CEO of Symphony Environmental, made the following comment on this article:
This article is partly correct. There are two main types of biodegradable plastic –
A. is tested according to EN13432 or ASTM D6400 to biodegrade in the special conditions found in an industrial composting facility, (not in home composting, nor in the open environment). The author is talking about this type of biodegradable plastic, and yes, it is not recyclable, and it will generate methane in landfill. Also, producing this type of plastic is not better for the environment if you consider the fossil fuels, land resources, and water, used in the agricultural production process.
B. is designed to biodegrade if it gets into the open environment, and is tested for degradability, biodegradability, and non-toxicity, according to ASTM D6954. It exists not to create microplastics but to remove microplastics (by making them biodegradable). It is recyclable, but the items for which it is used would not normally be recycled. It is inert deep in landfill, and does not deplete fossil resources, because it is made from a by-product of oil which would be extracted anyway to make fuels.
It is extraordinary how many people who are concerned about plastic persisting in the open environment are choosing A instead of B, especially where there are no industrial composting facilities in the country or locality concerned. Perhaps they are also unaware that A. is much more expensive, and does not convert into compost, but converts instead into CO2.
“This comment was written by Michael Laurier and reflects his own opinion. BioplasticsNews.com does not necessarily share this opinion.”
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