From food packaging to toys to airplanes… plastic is definitely one of the world’s most versatile, universal and, arguably, necessary materials. But – it comes at a cost. Made from synthetic carbon-based polymers made mostly from petroleum, plastic is a material that, once processed, does not easily integrate back into nature.
Yes, that bottle of water, in the hand for an average of 12 minutes, will remain on this earth for hundreds, if not thousands, of years if left to decompose of its own accord. Therein comes the plastic dilemma: disposable, dispensable and ubiquitous products of a material engineered to last forever (well, almost).
Plastic disposal creates pollution and leads to a catalogue of environmental disasters, such as The Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Getting rid of plastic is extremely difficult. Burning it releases toxic fumes. Recycling is complicated due to the many and various types of plastics all requiring different processes.
In an attempt to address our plastic addiction, a new wave of ‘environmentally friendly’ plastics are now hitting the scene. These plastics can be broadly divided into three types:
- Bioplastics: made from natural materials such as corn starch
- Biodegradable plastics: still made from petrochemicals but designed to break down faster
- Eco/recycled plastics: made from recycled plastics
Let’s take a look at them in turn.
Bioplastics are made on the principle that if we make plastic from kinder material to begin with they’ll break down more easily when we are done with them. Commonly made from corn, they often look indistinguishable from traditional plastic products. In addition to using less energy to produce, bioplastics also produce 70% less greenhouse gases when they degrade in landfills. (Read more on NatureWorks.) Products made from this type of plastic are surprisingly wide-ranging, in use for everything from 3D printing to beauty and household.
Biodegradable plastics are something you may have noticed if you are in the habit of reading supermarket bags. These plastics contain additives that will cause them to break down faster in the presence of light and oxygen (‘oxo-degradable’). Unlike their bioplastic counterparts, these plastics contain all the usual suspects of petrochemical base materials, may not degrade in landfill conditions and will leave a toxic residue when decomposed, making them unsuitable for composting.
Recycled plastics are one solution to turn old waste materials into new products – and that doesn’t just mean more plastic bottles. Plastics can, in fact, be recycled into everything from new shoes to building materials to clothes. It is more difficult to judge the benefit of recycled plastic for the environment, given that we must consider any potential saving in water and energy it takes to collect, process and transform old material versus simply making it anew.
However, the benefits of rubbish elimination and environmental transformation can be significant. An exemplary example of this is Haiti, where the lack of a formal rubbish collection system has led citizens to take control of their environment, establishing The Plastic Bank:
3 Problems with ‘eco’ plastics.
Unfortunately, saving the world is never as easy as one may hope. As with most things, the new ways to manage plastics face limits and complications. Three of the fundamental problems with the new plastics are:
- Even bio plastic takes its time to die. Biodegradable plastics and bio plastics do not decompose that easily. They need moisture and heat and good conditions and the process can take many years and then, still, leave behind a nasty residue.
- Recycling dilemma. Biodegradable plastics and bio plastics are not easy to recycle. The mix up of these plastics with traditional plastic products can wreak havoc on recycling management programmes, undermining years of effort. Companies need to be more clean in how to properly dispose of their products.
- The jargon. Many people thing terms like ‘biodegradable’, ‘compostable’ and ‘bioplastic’ are interchangeable, whilst they all signify a variety of different production and waste processes. This can hinder efforts to bring the products to market and consumers are a long way from being clear in their choice.
So, what’s the verdict on the earth credentials of eco plastics?
Whilst it is encouraging to see the progress made to solve the issue with traditional plastics, it is clear we are far off a perfect solution. Biodegradable plastics are, in particular, in the spotlight for misleading with the environmental promise given the length of time they take to decompose and their inherent toxic consistency. Bioplastics are in the line of fire for using GM crops and confusing recycling systems. Plastic recycling, in the meantime, does not eliminate the need for production of new products in the first instance.
As usual, in the end it’s just down to you. Some tips for assisting the plastic problem are:
- That canvas / reusable bag you have hanging around – put a few in the car and carry one around in your jacket pocket or handbag
- Collect loose fruit and vegetables from the supermarket isle rather than buying them prepackaged
- Invest in longer lasting items with replaceable parts rather than disposable items – e.g. drinking bottles, razor blades, pens, reusable coffee cups etc.
- Think about what you are buying. The heart trembles at the idea of how much empty space in the world is filled with unwanted Kinder Surprise toys.
- Dispose of your plastic properly. We know now that it matters.