Water/Wastewater

  • Use of Biodegradable Plastics “Well-Intentioned but Wrong”, Warns Top Scientist

Use of Biodegradable Plastics “Well-Intentioned but Wrong”, Warns Top Scientist

Jul 05 2016 Read 1941 Times

A leading authority on environmental issues has warned that the use of biodegradable plastic should not be seen as a long-term solution or sustainable replacement to traditional plastics. In a UN report released last month, the body’s chief scientist at the Environment Programme said that the use of such bags was “well-intentioned, but wrong”.

An uphill battle against a growing problem

The ever-accumulating amount of plastic which finds its way into our oceans is of increasing concern, affecting all manner of marine life. Birds, fish and other creatures ingest the plastic, which leads to gastrointestinal difficulties and can cause starvation and death.

Several years ago, many companies sought to circumvent the problem by creating a biodegradable alternative. Supermarkets and shops were encouraged to adopt the biodegradable options for carrier bags in order to cut down on the amount of plastic ending up in the sea. However, there have been problems with the idea of a “biodegradable” plastic since the outset.

Back in 2011, the EU Commission highlighted the discrepancy between biodegradable and compostable, pointing out that the two terms are not interchangeable.

“In the current practice, a packaging product is acknowledged to be biodegradable if it biodegrades in industrial composting facilities in controlled conditions. However, a product that is compostable in an industrial facility will not necessarily biodegrade in natural conditions in the environment,” the Commission said. “Advertising a packaging product as biodegradable when in fact it will not biodegrade in natural conditions can be misleading for the consumer and can contribute to the proliferation of littering of products that will
persist in the environment.”

Biodegradable plastic often not available for recycling

Meanwhile, a more recent study conducted by the Heidelberg Institute for Energy and Environmental Research found that such bags offered little to no ecological benefits over traditional plastic carriers.

This is largely because although the bags do compost, the time necessary for this process to take place makes it unfeasible in an industrial composting plant. At the same time, it can’t be recycled along with other plastic materials, since the variation in their composition would contaminate one another. As such, these bags are generally burned in thermal incineration plants.

Now, the UN’s chief scientist Jacqueline McGlade has lent her voice to the argument against biodegradable plastic, claiming that despite their compostable nature, they are unlikely to end up in conditions conducive to disintegration.

“"It's well-intentioned but wrong,” McGlade told the Guardian. “A lot of plastics labelled biodegradable, like shopping bags, will only break down in temperatures of 50°C and that is not the ocean. They are also not buoyant, so they're going to sink, so they're not going to be exposed to UV and break down.”

Instead, the solution lies in reduced use of plastics, improved waste collection and a comprehensive recycling infrastructure.

Reader comments

Ross

Jul 07 2016

While most of this article is correct, there are discrepancies and there is other information not presented. What was presented about compostable plastic as not biodegrading where consumers discard their rubbish is correct and that is a big problem for any compostable plastic. There is also no infra structure in place to separately collect and transport compostable plastic so its recycling % is all most zero. Another big problem for this material. Not to be confused with its recyclability, which is zero. Then while you made reference to it you didn't mention Degradable plastics or oxodegradable. This is a disaster of a product. It causes the plastic to fragment into little bite sized pieces which blow and flow around the environment. It does not fragment if buried in a landfill as no sunlight or oxygen there. Its only purpose it to make plastic waste up on top the ground less visible to the human eye. But very dangerous to the environment. It cannot be mainstream recycled either as it contaminate the new products. Their only disposal method is incineration and if it is to be incinerated then why go to the bother to make it degradable in the first place? Degradable plastics particularly bags are greenwashed and sold as biodegradable, good for the environment. When in reality they are the opposite. There is a newer third option, landfill-biodegradable. This is traditional plastic like LDPE with an organic additive in it. This attracts natural microorganisms in a landfill for example to digest the plastic. Not a fast process, years as a min for any plastic with a thickish wall section. But as long as it biodegrades in 20 years or so then that plastic is not being left for the next generation to deal with. In the ocean there are very microorganisms hence landfill-biodegradable plastics will act like any other plastic in the ocean. None of the above are any good for the ocean and the only solution there is to stop using disposable plastic items all together.

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