Appearances and words can be deceiving.
I’ve been noticing more and more sustainable alternatives at the grocery store and I applaud the businesses that are trying to be more eco-conscious. But, their switch from plastic to bioplastic is leading to tons of confusion amongst consumers. The packaging and advertising on these products always include the terms compostable and biodegradable. The synonymous use of these terms is a very subtle greenwashing tactic that can hinder our understanding of how these new products affect the environment.
Biodegradation and composting are ways to break down organic waste using naturally occurring and biological processes found in nature. The term biodegradable refers to the breakdown of matter into organic elements by microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi. The term compostable refers to the aerobic breakdown of matter, such as raw materials like leaves, food, etc. into nontoxic organic elements by microorganisms using humidity and high heat. These terms are often used interchangeably but are completely different especially when it comes to understanding plastic.
The type of plastic we see almost every day is synthetic and is derived from crude oil and natural gas that can degrade into microplastics over time. Bioplastic is a broad term used to encompass plastics that are bio-based and biodegradable. Bio-based plastics are made from renewable and natural plant-based materials such as corn, sugarcane, starches, and vegetable fats and oils that tend to produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions. The most commonly used bio-based products are generally made from corn, a type of monoculture crop that takes just as long to decompose as synthetic plastic if not disposed of properly.
According to BBC Science Focus, biodegradable plastics should take less than a year to decompose. However, the term biodegradable is not regulated, so the conditions in which the products need to break down and the time frame to do so are meaningless. Some businesses have even disguised their petroleum-based plastics as biodegradable, by including additives that help oxidate the material leading to microplastics or chemical decomposition. Even compostable plastics do not break down in your backyard compost or landfill. They are designed to be in industrial facilities that are not accessible to most people and don’t accept all products.
Bioplastics aren’t all that they are portrayed to be. They might be less bad or a slightly better alternative to synthetic plastic but it’s not going to solve the plastic problem. It might be creating another one, especially without the right facilities and laws in place. Bioplastics cannot be recycled and can actually disrupt the recycling system through contamination which means they are likely to end up under the mountains of trash in the landfill creating methane.
The next time you’re shopping, be wary of the environmentally responsible claims on single use plastics and choose quality reusable alternatives from businesses who are making conscious decisions about their products.