Biodegradable plastic is one of the more interesting developments in the past century. With mounting pressure from civil society about the effects of plastic pollution in our world today, it’s no small wonder that manufacturers are turning to bioplastics.
Bioplastic research has been advancing for years, and biodegradable plastic bags have become all the rage because they appear to address the growing need to improve the plastics economy. But does biodegradable plastic packaging truly improve our situation?
We take a close look at biodegradable plastic examples and different types of biodegradable plastics that are in production in the world today. We also examine how biodegradable products figure into the larger chain of production, so we can better understand how the new plastics economy works for people like you and me.
How Long Does Biodegradable Plastic Take to Decompose?
If you ask about products that have been certified as biodegradable or compostable, you are looking at three months to an average maximum of six months.
There are different types of bioplastics, but the best ones are marked as either biodegradable or compostable. Take note that not all biopolymers that are marketed as degradable are compostable.
There is a huge difference between biopolymers that are compostable and just degradable.
When something degrades physically, it stays chemically stable, and it’s unchanged from the chemical level. Some biopolymers are like this, and they’re not so ideal because they still tend to persist in the environment for a long time.
There are different levels of biopolymer materials depending on the sign or mark placed by the manufacturer. The most compostable of them all is the “home compostable” resins. These are the resins that have been made to break down so quickly that they don’t have to be brought to a facility anymore.
The industrial-compostable resins are the ones that have to be sorted first and then placed in a specialized facility that can handle compostable resins and food waste. The method of breaking down organic matter at this level applies to the resins.
The microbes needed to break down compostable resins are the same microbes needed to break food waste. Please note that these may not be added to regular recyclable polymers, as they will become contaminants and ruin the batch of regular plastics.
Degradable polymers are not biodegradable. They won’t turn into compost, and they can’t be recycled either. They can be used for energy recovery, or they can be incinerated, depending on what country you live in.
Oxo-degradable products are not biodegradable either. Rather, they will begin to break down on a physical level with the help of oxygen and moisture. But they will not decompose the same way as compostable materials. Again, there isn’t a standard signification for oxo-degradable products as manufacturers tend to have their way of marking their products.
How Does Biodegradable Plastic Help the Environment?
Biodegradable plastics are by no means the final frontier for plastics. There’s still a lot to discover and develop because they are not perfect.
But they help in a fashion because they provide a way for humans to bring back the plastic products to the Earth, where the Earth can decompose the products. Single-use plastics are the most problematic among the different plastic products because there’s just so much of it, and people use it every time.
Disposable plastic products help us live healthier lives because the plastic protects our food – but at what cost? We know we have trillions of tons of plastic on land and no clear way to dispose of them.
How Are Biodegradable Plastics Broken Down?
The general flow is predictable for the majority of biodegradable plastics. Like all plastics, biodegradable plastics reach the end of their useful life when consumers finally discard them.
This is where it gets tricky. Biodegradable and compostable plastics are a bit more complex than truly organic containers, bags, and whatnot. They are still resins, and their molecular compositions are very similar to the composition of traditional plastic.
Be that as it may, these biopolymers are designed to finally give in to the call of the Earth when they interact with microbes. Some newer compostable or biodegradable materials also have a special film that allows them to break down more quickly. The process is quicker when the biodegradable or compostable plastic is properly sorted, collected, and brought to the right industrial composting facility.
These special films do not lapse or expire, and their primary job is to improve the interaction between the environment and the resin itself. And as nature works on the bioplastic, it is returned to a harmless form to the environment and ultimately useful for plants. Compostable bioplastics will eventually be used as plant food, help the growth of crops, etc. This is the power of a circular economy in action.
Why are more people lobbying for more bioplastics to be produced than just conventional plastics that are degradable? As we have discussed before, it has everything to do with what is left behind after the actual degradation process. Everything degrades eventually, including the plastics that we don’t like at all.
But it’s what happens to plastic that matters to the environment. Plastics are known for leaving a trail of toxic chemicals in their wake, from production to waste. It’s only useful when it remains functional.
But after that, the environment can’t break it down properly, and it takes several centuries before it can be completely rendered harmless.
There is so much plastic now in the environment that the defining feature of the Earth’s next age will be plastic, not anything else. This speaks as to how much damage we are causing the Earth by simply using plastic daily.
The only ‘downside’ to the biodegradation of biopolymers is that the resins give off CO2. Every living thing on Earth either absorbs or uses CO2. Plants particularly utilize CO2 for the production of food. This is the end-game of producing bioplastics. We want to be able to produce plastics that would become plant food in the end.