Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Truth About Biodegradable Plastics

For years, we've been led to believe that biodegradable plastics are safer for the environment. We think that once we throw them away, they'll just degrade and decompose back into the soil. But what most people don't know is that not all biodegradable plastics are equal, and not all biodegradable plastics are good for the environment.
Let's take for example bioplastics. Bioplastics are made from renewable, organic resources like cellulose, starches, and vegetable oils. They're designed to break down and they're safe to use for food products. But how come we don't see enough bioplastic products in the market? Or how come not all our plastic products made from bioplastics.
First and foremost, bioplastics are expensive to manufacture. They require different manufacturing methods and more expensive raw materials. Yes, they are better for the environment but they don't anything for a factory's bottom line. And when it comes to business, cost trumps almost every else.
And the fact remains that producing these plastics still have an environmental impact and they still leave a significant carbon footprint. Sure, they consume less fossil fuel but they still consume some fossil fuel. It's a slightly better option but it's really not the best option available.
What about oxo-biodegradable plastics? They're as cheap as regular plastics and just as durable but they have the added benefit of biodegrable. Countries all over the world are now imposing laws banning regular plastics and pushing for the use of oxo-biodegradable plastics, thinking that it's better for the environment. But according to the studies done by the Europrean Plastics Recyclers Association, these plastics actually have the potential to do more harm than good.
How is it that a plastic that was created to help save the environment ends up harming it more? It turns out that these plastics don't really degrade as well as they claim. When oxo biodegradable plastics end up in a landfill, they're buried under layers of garbage. When they're not exposed to oxygen and light, they don't degrade. Cold weather and the presence of metals also slows down the degradation process. In fact, they can last as long as regular plastics when buried in a landfill.
These plastics aren't even biodegradable at all. They're designed to breakdown into smaller pieces but the plastic components themselves can't be broken down and used by microorganisms in the environment. These smaller pieces of plastic can easily be ingested, which makes them more dangerous to more animals.
There is a new type of plastic that still has the same components of traditional plastic but now made biodegradable because of an additive called ECM. This additive makes any type of plastic fully biodegradable. These ECM plastics are naturally degraded by bacteria and fungi and can be completely degraded in 5 years, regardless of where you throw them. It doesn't require any special handling or changes in the manufacturing process in order for it to work. Right now it's gaining popularity among plastic manufacturers in Europe, especially in Italy, because of its versatility. In fact, this kind of plastic is now being used in food-grade containers designed to "dissolve" in hot water.
But until this type of biodegradable plastic becomes widely available worldwide, the best and the most environment friendly option when it comes to using any type of plastic is to reuse them. Every time you re-use a plastic container or bag, you're keeping that piece of plastic out of the landfill, you're helping decrease the use of fossil fuels in the production of plastics and you're saving money. Recycling is also a great option but you have to keep in mind that not all plastics are recyclable. And the process of recycling itself still has some environmental impact so you have to make sure that you've completely re-used all your plastics before sending them to the recycling bin.

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