Biodegradable or Biodebatable Plastics?
Saving the world - what's green and what's mean..
The global plastics problem, and associated climate change crisis, is well documented as we know. There's Attenborough's positively influential Blue Planet, and the good work of organisations like the Ella McArthur Foundation which predicts more plastics than fish in our oceans by 2050. While plastic packaging has been the lifeblood for economies to satisfy consumer demand, the same economies are now rightly facing increased ethical demand.
80% of consumers are willing to pay more for sustainable packaging, according to a Simon-Kucher & Partners survey.
This shows we have the will, but what is the way....
According to an HMRC report, c. 10% of plastic packaging is effectively recovered and recycled, with the largest amount of it being landfilled and the second largest portion exported outside the EU.
Consequently we're seeing packaging labels with terms like Bio-Plastics, Oxo-Degradable, Oxo-Biodegradable, and Compostable. But are they ethical? Well, in some cases it's a simple 'no', but in other cases the answer is 'it depends'. The same survey found most people want clearer information, so FGP are pleased to demystify these ambiguous, marketing-heavy, terms.
The context of a 'waste hierarchy' will help...
"Discarded bioplastics must either be sent to a landfill... or sent to an industrial compost site". (National Geographic)
Bioplastics can have multiple meanings but according to European Bioplastics, they must either be biobased or biodegradable, or both. Biobased means using renewable raw materials like corn, sugar cane or potatoes. And biodegradable means a chemical process where microorganisms (environment dependent) convert material into 02, CO2, and compost (without needing artificial additives).
This means Bioplastics are often not Biodegradable, as biodegradation depends on its chemical structure, rather than its biobase. There's also no universal understanding for what % of the material needs to be biobased. Purists say 100%, producers say 60%. And while some plastics may have a 'biodegradable' aspect, this doesn't mean biodegradable in real life.
Why Bioplastics :)
Using renewable resources like starch takes reliance off finite fossil fuels and can yield a lower carbon footprint. The crops could also promote rural economies around the world, rather than being restricted to oil locations. But Bioplastics only occupy 1% of world plastics so we don't know how scalable they are, or their overall environmental impact. Environmental engineer and National Geographic explorer Jambeck, asks; “Where is it grown? How much land does it take up? How much water is needed?” These questions are raised in a world of growing populations, with land already under pressure for food. And it remains to be seen whether solving one fossil fuel problem could create other problems.
Why not Bioplastics :(
Their disposal. Most bioplastics can only be environmentally disposed in industrial composting of 65 degrees - not possible in landfills or home composts. And if they end up in nature or marine environments, they'll function like normal plastic. Currently industrial composting is rare and those that do exist actually prefer separating out bioplastics from typical compost waste like vegetable and garden. It's a similar problem with bioplastics corrupting regular plastic recycling. The end result is bioplastics adding to, not reducing, mountains of waste - and ending up in environments where they can't biodegrade.
Bioplastics Summary - Packaging Life Cycle PLC
Their potential is exciting especially as to their source/ how they're made. Renewable crops could be environmentally cleaner and save fossil fuels if managed sustainably. While their total impact is unrealised, they could boost economies and provide valuable employment in a fairer geographical spread. But as we stand, the lack of local industrial composting infrastructure (with most of those rejecting bioplastics) means most will end up in landfill or nature. Until there's better general knowledge about their disposal and/ or more better composting facilities, bioplastics will pollute regular recycling and make the waste problem worse. So they make a good start with how they're made, but the current situation doesn't solve the waste problem at the end of their life.
Oxo-degradable & Oxo Bio-degradable.
"Over 150 organisations worldwide endorse banning oxo-degradable plastic packaging worldwide". Excerpt from a statement by the New Plastics Economy initiative of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
These types of plastics have been banned by the European Commission, through the European Single-Use Plastics Directive. The UK will follow soon, as explained in Summary of responses to the call for evidence for bio-based, biodegradable, and compostable plastics and Government Response. (publishing.service.gov.uk).
Why not Oxo-degradable & Oxo Bio-degradable plastics? ):
Biodegradable is a positive word but its meaning has been stretched, and besmirched, by these plastics. Here's an intro to their main issues.
1) These are mostly fossil fuel plastics with a chemical additive, therefore not preserving fossil fuels.
2) The additives allegedly trigger fragmentation when exposed to heat or UV rays. Manufacturers claim oxidation means fragments biodegrade, but there is no solid evidence for this. Likewise, there is no internationally acknowledged standard or certification process that proves oxo-degradation. It's more evident that once they've fragmented, they become micro plastics. This smaller size makes them more likely to blow or wash in to waterways, and ultimately lakes and seas - where there's a lack of heat or UV for the final alleged biodegradation process to happen. This same problem applies in landfill conditions. Contrary to their chemical additives accelerating biodegradation to biomass or compost (will only happen if they have a recognised composting standard) they actually accelerate plastics fragmenting down to micro plastics which then enter eco systems. The far reaching negative effects, such as fish eating them and entering our food chain, are only just being realised.
2) The first point is a big problem when they enter natural environments, whether accidentally or by littering. This is highly likely due to these plastics typically used for high volume everyday consumer products like food and carrier bags etc. So you might think... at least they're easier to recycle? Sadly not. In their non-circular economy spirit, these plastics are non-recyclable. They corrupt standard plastic recycling and composting facilities. The Recycle Now website Plastic film & carrier bags | Recycle Now lists all local soft plastic recycling collection points, including all major retailers like Tesco, and they all reject soft plastics which are oxo-deg or oxo-bio-deg. This means the only other place for them apart from the wild is landfill. And landfill effectively acts like a tomb for preserving waste.
3) Their lack of recyclability obviously doesn't solve the growing waste problem but it also means not contributing new resource for making new products.
Oxo Summary - Packaging Life Cycle PLC
The start and end of their PLC makes for poor reading. At the start, they're made with fossil fuels and chemical additives. At the end, they can't be recycled, adding to mountains of waste. And likewise they don't give anything back to the current production need for huge waves of new products. This, coupled with their detrimental effect in nature, makes them very much part of the problem, not the solution. Gladly though, authorities and the public are getting wise and better alternatives are available. This includes regular plastics, whose recycling facilities are vastly improving and making it easier for consumers to put back in what's taken out.
"In the absence of controlled composting facilities, most biodegradable plastics end up in landfills, or worse, in rivers and the ocean," Greenpeace's East Asia plastics researcher Dr Molly Zhongnan Jia.
The 'controlled facilities' in the above quote exist but rare. And it's only biodegradable plastics which meet 'compostable standards' that can go in industrial composting, which is good news when they get there. The terms biodegradable and compostable can crossover and mean their own things. Labels with biodegradable claims, in isolation, have no universal standard. But biodegradable plastic which are compostable have the UK and EU BS EN 13432 standard. This ensures criteria are met, like biodegrading within 6 months to only CO2, O2, H2O and biomass, and leaving no toxic waste. However, most plastics marketed as biodegradable justify their dubious claim because a small aspect biodegrades (most things will given enough time) and they do leave a lot of toxic waste. Many businesses claim they reduce down to only biomass but it's only novel marketing unless they have the following certification...
"The criteria for this standard means it biodegrades, either on an industrial scale through the organic management system already in place (Anaerobic digestion), wastewater treatment (Aerobic), large scale composting, or through backyard composting (soil composting), or even in a marine environment and pose no harmful/toxic effects on the environment i.e. free of heavy metals and organic contaminants. To do this, legislation and standards have been proposed and put in place by the ASTM, ISO, BS and EN bodies." (BS EN 13432 - Plastic Biodegradability Testing - Impact Solutions (impact-solutions.co.uk)
Likewise some compostable plastics can also go in home composts or soil composting. These materials meet stricter test temperatures and durations, and come with a Belgian ‘OK Compost Home’ specification stamp of approval. This is managed by the certification body Vinçotte and aligned to EN 13432.
Why Compostable Plastics? :)
Regarding their disposal, they help solve the growing waste problem if they find their way to the correct industrial composting facilities or home compost. Waste doesn't get much greener than breaking down all the way to support plant growth. Also, with some waste invariably finding its way in to nature, it's good to know the home compost standard material will biodegrade quicker and less dangerously than normal plastics. The other big plus of these plastics is their accompanying standards. These give us confidence they meet criteria in an otherwise murky world of marketing led terms. One such criteria is compatibility with existing facilities for compostable/organic waste management.
Why not Compostable Plastics? :(
A flipside to home compost material being less dangerous in nature is studies suggest they can increase litter because consumers perceive it to be less harmful to the environment. Furthermore, the majority of compostable plastics circulating everyday life are industrial compost only, meaning little benefit if littered. They will perform like normal plastics because nature won't meet industrial composting conditions. There's the similar issue that compostable plastics aren't designed to be recycled - perhaps surprising to most people, especially as many look the same as normal plastics. They corrupt regular recycling and can mean regular plastics don't get recycled. It's also argued the composting process emits a lot of CO2, which we're trying to reduce.
"Globally, the industrial infrastructure needed to process compostable plastics - from collection through to high-temperature composting - does not exist at the scale needed to match the volume of those plastics being produced". China biodegradable plastics 'failing to solve pollution crisis' - BBC News
It's also the case most industrial composters still prefer to separate out compostable plastics from regular vegetable and garden waste.
Compostable Plastics Summary - Packaging Life Cycle
These plastics get the thumbs up from FGP if producers, suppliers and consumers all do their bit. For instance...
Producers need to clearly mark whether they're industrial compost only or also home compost, and ensure suppliers have better understanding what they mean. With this, they can offer extra support like waste packaging collections to ensure waste ends up in the right place.
Suppliers, buyers of this packaging, can then understand if their customers will 1) have the appropriate local collections and 2) if they do, how likely will that moment of consumption and disposal for their particular products translate to accessing industrial composts? For example, drinking a take-away coffee in a compostable plastic cup and lid is highly unlikely to find its way to an industrial compost until most high street or coffee shop bins also include compost collection sections. Suppliers also need to pass on their understanding to their consumers.
Consumers then need to ensure they follow the advice of not entering regular recycling, not littering and being diligent finding the correct compost collection.
To conclude, the sustainability of their source in manufacture depends on the % of material content which is renewable, recycled and fossil based. And these material contents come with their own pros & cons, such as those introduced above about bioplastics using renewable content. Their process allows all the benefits of regulars plastics like efficiency, and their disposal could be their ace card with better facilities, communication and consumer understanding.
Wrapping up the Bio Debate
"It is really important to have clear infrastructure for what we call 'end-of-life'. Plastic is single-use unless it can be recycled, or, even better, reused," said Dr Rachael Rothman, the co-director of the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures at the University of Sheffield.
Like Rothman says, a sustainable future means moving away from the take, make, use, throw economy model, towards a circular economy model. At the top of the Waste Hierarchy is use less. Producers have a duty to 'design-out' unnecessary material and 'design-in' features so it's better to repair, reuse and/ or return. This can include making it better quality first time. Similarly, producers can work with their customers to design mono-material packaging so it's easier for consumers to dispose in one recycling stream.
“Growing volumes of end-of-use plastics are generating costs and destroying value to the industry. After-use plastics could, with circular economy thinking, be turned into valuable feedstock.” Dr Martin R Stuchtey of the McKinsey Center for Business and Environment, who supports McArthur's reports, said a wave of innovation could be transformative.
Innovation is indeed the key, whether it's through packaging producers and/ or recycling facilities. Better still is innovation coming through planning and communication between producers and recycling facilities, supported by consumer feedback.
Forever Green Packaging
FGP will be the first to share packaging innovations with our customers and readers. In terms of where we are now, FGP help customers reduce how much packaging they use and then present the most sustainable options for the minimum packaging they need.
Product-wise, further to FSC certified paper packaging, we are proud to present...
1) a Recycled Content packaging film, made using 30% less virgin material, and 100% recyclable. To make it easier to recycle, we offer a Free Waste Collection service. This means 100% of the collected waste film 100% gets recycled in to new products.
2) a Compostable packaging film, which meets the EN13432 standard (Industrial & Home compost) as explained above. To make it easier to compost, as only 5% of UK homes have composts, we offer a Free Waste Collection service. This means 100% of this collected waste gets industrially composted.
The end result is there should be no waste at all with our Shop's packaging range.
Finally, most eco-conscious developments so far have been well-intentioned and at the start of their journey. Thankfully too, the more profit-driven and eco-unfriendly plastics are becoming better understood and phased out. We hope our Blog has helped.
Happy packing, yours Forever Green.
Bioplastics—are they truly better for the environment? (nationalgeographic.com)
Oxo-Degradables – European Bioplastics e.V. (european-bioplastics.org)
Why biodegradables won’t solve the plastic crisis - BBC Future
Government to explore ban on oxo-degradable plastics (edie.net)
Plastic film & carrier bags | Recycle Now
'Biodegradable' plastic bags survive three years in soil - BBC News
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