In the wake of the Blue Planet Effect, the world is on a plastic detox. From petitions for plastic-free supermarkets to the world’s first plastic-free aisle, the war on plastics is on. UK businesses are also jumping on the bandwagon, with more than 40 companies recently signing the new Plastics Pact to eliminate single-use packaging.
Are you also reconsidering conventional plastics? Navigating the landscape of alternatives can be confusing. Should you switch to bio-based, biodegradable or compostable plastics? Don’t let the many buzzwords leave a looming question mark around the possibilities for your business.
Use our blog to test your understanding of key differences between alternatives and avoid misconceptions!
Biodegradable always means compostable
False: These two terms are often used interchangeably but are not fully synonymous. Compostable plastics are always featured, biodegradable, but the opposite doesn’t hold true.
In theory, biodegradable materials should break down into carbon dioxide, water and minerals. Considering many plastics take centuries to break down, it’s not surprising that this seems like the antidote to our plastic addiction. Here’s the catch: many things on the planet biodegrade but most plastics only do so at specific temperatures and optimal levels of water, light and oxygen. Even so, some biodegradables still leave toxic residues in the environment.
Compostable plastics break down without leaving any traces of toxic waste. Composting is essentially a way of allowing plastics to biodegrade into high-quality fertilizer.
But not all compostable plastics are created equal. While some are compostable at home, most will only break down in higher temperatures that can only be reached in industrial facilities.
In practice, most plastics that are labelled “biodegradable” are only compostable in industrial facilities – not at home nor in the environment. Look out for the compostable seedling logo – it certifies that a plastic is industrially compostable. You may also come across the OK Compost home certification, although it’s far less common.
A bioplastic is the same as a biodegradable or compostable plastic
False: Bio-based plastics can be: conventional plastics, biodegradable but not compostable, or biodegradable and compostable.
Bio-based plastics, or ‘bioplastics’, are made from at least 20% of renewable feedstocks. Some bioplastics are chemically identical to standard plastics and therefore, rather confusingly, these are non-biodegradable but are recyclable. Bioplastics are often used in the production of widely recycled conventional polymers, such as PET.
That being said, over half of biodegradable plastics on the market are bioplastics made from corn, coconut, potato, rice, soy proteins or sugarcane. These “starch-based” plastics are usually compostable. Some are also blended or layered with petroleum-based plastics and additives to help decomposition.
All alternative plastics can be composted
False: Each type of alternative plastic has an optimal disposal route. While some are best disposed of through composting or anaerobic digestion, others are designed to be mechanically recycled.
The benefits of alternative plastics are hindered by misconceptions and the slow emergence of adequate infrastructure
True: The General public is no plastic expert. Even those who are aware of optimal disposal routes, don’t always have access to them.
Misconceptions can compromise a successful transition to alternative plastics. If all alternatives are assumed to be compostable anywhere in nature, we won’t solve plastic littering.
A large percentage of “biodegradable” or industrially compostable plastics still end up in our oceans. Have you ever heard of a 50°C to 70°C ocean? The sea is simply not suited for these plastics to biodegrade, which means impacts on aquatic life remain.
Spotting the difference between plastics is difficult. A few years ago, Coca-Cola made a bold effort to reduce their reliance on petroleum by switching their bottles to a bio-based plastic. But people got confused by how to dispose of the new PlantBottle as it looked so similar to a standard plastic bottle.
Chemically, these two bottles are essentially identical. Though the PlantBottle is made with up to 30% bio-based ethanol, it does not biodegrade. Instead, it’s designed to be recycled. Unfortunately, the world has a limited number of chemistry graduates. It’s easy to assume that the tiny green PlantBottle logo means:
I’m made of plants, so throwing me in nature is fine because eventually, I’ll disappear.
Consider another scenario: you want to dispose of a compostable fork. It looks and feels like plastic, so shouldn’t it be recycled? Unfortunately, biodegradables cannot be recycled. If mixed with other recyclables, they will contaminate all other materials and prevent anything from being recycled.
A large gap in available infrastructure for biodegradables also remains. Food waste collection in the UK is in its infancy.
Considering most people don’t home compost or have access to food waste collection, compostable plastics usually end up in general waste bins. As with other organic material, this will eventually lead to potent methane emissions as the waste breaks down in the landfill.
Overcoming the challenges associated with misconceptions and infrastructure is difficult. Being equipped with an understanding of the differences between bioplastics, biodegradables and compostables is a great place to start. If you are considering transitioning to an alternative, these three key takeaways will further help guide your business towards more effective solutions:
You may also be interested in learning about the solutions to plastic pollution at different lifecycle stages of plastics. Read our post here ‘We have a problem and a lot of plastics’.
Are you still not sure how to address your plastic packaging? Get in touch, Avieco can help you undertake a packaging review and establish a sustainable packaging strategy.
Tackling the plastic problem is not an easy thing. Read our blog: “The Era of convenience wrapped in plastics”
Upcoming feature: Feasibility study on compostable plastics in the UK.
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