ECO PLASTIC BREAKDOWN
Plastic is one of the biggest industries in America, contributing billions to our economy and employing millions. Almost every gadget, tool, food item, or useful thing we touch on a daily basis either contains plastic or is made of plastic. The demand is apparent, and the supply has been tasked to match our consumption. But our consciousness has grown almost in lock step with the growth of the plastics industry, giving rise to demand for more environmentally friendly plastic options. This reality has added a new caveat to our discourse, so it’s about time that we check out the hype on eco plastics.
There are three types of eco plastics: bioplastics, biodegradable plastics, and recycled plastics. But before we get to them, let’s clear up some definitions that have been confused, or even used to greenwash the eco plastic issue.
Compostable is a legal term with standards set forth by The American Society for Testing of Materials. Compostable means a product will disintegrate in a compost site within approximately 90 days and leave no toxic residue. Microorganisms break down compostable plastics into carbon dioxide, water, inorganic compounds and biomass at the same rate as other organic compounds in the pile, like apple cores.
Biodegradable is a buzz word, not a legal definition, and has no set standards. Biodegradable means a product can be broken down by microorganisms into water, carbon dioxide, and compost in some, unspecified amount of time. Technically plastic producers can use this word to describe their products because at some point in the future, even if it’s 1,000 years from today, plastic might finally biodegrade. We haven’t been using plastic long enough to know for sure whether this will happen, but we can’t definitively say that it won’t, either.
Degradable is a completely generic term – everything degrades to some extent. Degradable means a product can be broken down into smaller pieces of itself. Plastic can be broken down into tiny fragments or powder, which can contaminate the very base of our food chain.
And now, on to the three types of eco plastics.
Bioplastics are plastics made of renewable, natural materials.
Polylactic acid (PLA) is made from starches (usually from corn) and used in a variety of applications, from 3D printing to disposable cutlery, to medical implants.
Polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) is made from microorganisms that produce it in response to nutrient deprivation. It can be used in the medical industry to produce items like sutures and slings, and in the food industry for single-use packaging.
Bioplastics are also considered Biodegradable Plastics (see below).
Biodegradable Plastics are Bioplastics OR plastics made from traditional petrochemicals, which contain additives that cause them to decay faster when exposed to light and oxygen. (Fun fact: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires all landfills to block out air, moisture, and sunlight – which are required for proper biodegradation of “biodegradable” products.)
Oxo-degradable Plastics are petroleum-based plastics that also contain metal salts. The metal salts increase the speed of degradation when exposed to oxygen and heat, but the final biodegradation of remaining fragments is debatable; and some metals used, like Cobalt, may further harm the environment.
Hydro-degradable Plastics are usually made from starch (bioplastic), but they can contain synthetic plastic as well (hybrid).
Recycled Plastics are traditional plastics that have been recycled. Plastic water bottles, for example, are often recycled only once into fibers that make up clothing.
Proponents of each “environmentally friendly” plastic boast about their benefits, but each has its drawbacks, too. Let’s take a quick look at some of the pros and cons of all three eco plastics.
I don’t know about you, but this illumination of definitions, pros and cons has left me feeling a bit hopeless. Some people have gone so far as to label current recycling programs and initiatives as a waste of time and money – even fraudulent in their claims. Biodegradable plastic possibilities look like a pig wearing lipstick, and the introduction of bioplastics is far from a silver bullet solution at this time. Sigh.
Maybe we just need more perspective – and a few promising alternatives.
Before plastic we had no infrastructure to produce it. But we made it happen, and we could do it again. Using the knowledge we’ve gained with our global plastic experiment, we could create new systems that could produce more environmentally friendly and still wholly useful products. That’s the thing about humans: we’re very creative.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has developed an edible and biodegradable packaging film made from the milk protein, casein. Though unsuitable for those with dairy intolerance (and let’s not even begin to discuss the land, water, and energy usage required for dairy production), the USDA claims this packaging film provides a better oxygen barrier than plastic films and can be made to include nutrients like probiotics and vitamins in the future.
Futamura offers a product called NatureFlex, which is a bio-film based on renewable resources, certified to US and European industrial composting standards. Futamura claims that NatureFlex has good gas barrier properties and moisture barrier properties comparable to biaxially oriented polypropylene (BoPP, a common plastic film), which would make the product an excellent alternative to traditional plastic packaging. They even offer metallized bio-films, which are used today by companies like Alter Eco. Data sheets for their products can be found on their website.
Full Cycle Bioplastics in California is tackling existing problems with their Polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) bioplastic. According to their website, “PHA is produced naturally by bacteria using mixed organic waste as raw material. It can replace a wide range of synthetic plastics… it is compostable and marine degradable, and cost-competitive with fossil-fuel based alternatives.”
Whew, now I feel better. Of course, there is still the issue of what to do right now.
We all know that plastic isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. But we should also know that we have the power to change how we use plastics, and even how we make them. When we consider the life cycles of eco plastics and traditional plastics, we would be hard pressed to say one is more environmentally friendly than the other – yet. But again, we humans are very creative creatures, and when we put our minds to something, there’s no limit to what we can achieve.
If you’re confused by, concerned with, or committed to changing our modern plastic landscape, here are some pointers that might help you navigate this increasingly complex issue:
Remember that reducing is the highest priority on the recycling hierarchy. So, reduce your need for plastic in the first place. There are literally thousands of ways to do this, and a quick internet search will yield plenty of feasible ideas. As you reduce, also re-use what you already have.
Knowledge is power. Get you some! Follow the plastic reduction news from around the world. National Geographic has created a running list of actions being taken against plastic pollution. It’s pretty inspiring. You can find it here.
Put your money where your mouth is. Consider supporting companies like Full Cycle Bioplastics, Futamura or others who are working to provide eco-friendly, sustainable alternatives to plastic.
Organize a neighborhood clean-up and plastic-free potluck. Beautify an area, eat good food, raise consciousness, meet your neighbors. That’s a win 4-times over.
Look for this label when you are presented with a non-traditional plastic option.