The misunderstandings and confusion that surrounds bioplastics are not just because of the complicated technology or the partial truths carefully disclosed to consumers (see Part One of this series, “Myth #1: Bioplastics Are Better Than Plastics”). It stems from widespread misunderstandings and assumptions about what “bioplastic,” “biodegradable” and “degradable” actually mean.
Myth vs. Reality: Myth #2
Also called “organic plastic,” bioplastic simply means some or all of the resin made from fossil fuel is replaced with plastic resin made from an organic material. It has absolutely nothing to do with biodegradability. Some bioplastics are biodegradable but, unfortunately, the ones used most commonly are not.
Bioplastics are often so new that enough time has not passed to produce research validating claims of biodegradability.
Over time, all plastics either biodegrade or degrade. If they biodegrade, the plastic decomposes into natural elements – it is broken down by living organisms. If it degrades, the plastic breaks down into something else or is somehow reduced, but it does not go away. Plastic that biodegrades is preferable, as it makes the plastic permanently go away.
While some bioplastics, like cornstarch-based PLA plastics, have been proven to start biodegrading in the right composting environment, composting facilities are difficult to find and most don’t have the ideal conditions required. Because most people don’t deliver it to a compost facility, most PLA plastics end up in a landfill, where they act exactly like traditional plastics.
Some bioplastics have proven to show reduction in the use of fossil fuels within the product and its manufacturing process, but the exorbitant cost of the most effective bioplastics prohibit them from being used.
Oxo-degradable (aka Oxy-degradable) plastics can be another type of bioplastic, if it was made from a biological material. It is a plastic infused with metals that helps the plastic break up, or degrade; it does not biodegrade and vanish. As the metal heats up, it simply falls apart into microscopic pieces that linger for centuries – just as long as other plastics.
Moving past assumptions
Whether a bioplastic claims to be biodegradable or not, it can be helpful to do a little research before purchasing products that are assumed to be environmentally friendly. If you are a beverage bottling company, packing company or retailer, asking for research and proof of claims can be very enlightening. If you are a consumer, learning more about the product from unbiased resources can be extremely helpful.
Every day, more information becomes available. Taking time to look for the facts is the only way to ensure you are truly living a greener, more sustainable life.