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Biodegradable Plastics

Biodegradable plastics have been promoted as revolutionary environmental products, but some have questioned whether the hype is nothing more than greenwashing.

Biodegradable plastics, made primarily of pesticide-laden corn, are used in a variety of products ranging from bags to bottles to gift cards to cell phone casings. Biodegradable does not necessarily mean compostable, though many people assume that they are the same, and a number of biodegradable plastics claim to be compostable as well.

The trouble with claims of compostability is that they may refer only to large-scale industrial composting whereby materials are shredded and composted at 140 degrees Fahrenheit, far hotter than typical home compost piles. Most large commercial operations don’t accept biodegradable plastics and most small-scale home composting processes won’t break these plastics down.

Mother Earth News conducted a study designed to evaluate the 100% compostable claims of five bioplastics producers, finding that none degraded completely within 25 weeks in home composting systems (four out of five did break down in commercial composting conditions).

To make matters worse, biodegradable plastics can’t be recycled along with regular plastics (they can actually contaminate entire batches of regular plastic, making the recycled products useless). This means that they’re more likely to end up in landfills than regular plastics. Consumers assume that this is alright because they’ll biodegrade eventually in the landfill, but this is actually a problem because materials breaking down in landfills produce methane, a greenhouse gas more potent than CO2. Because of this problem, Brenda Platt, Coordinator of Sustainable Plastics Project, Institute for Local Self-Reliance, argues that we’re better off designing products for reuse, recycling, or effective composting.

There are better biodegradable plastics being developed, but some require the use of genetically modified organisms and how well they will actually break down in home systems remains to be seen.


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