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Are Biodegradable Plastics Good For The Environment?

are biodegradable plastics good for the environment

greenwash

As consumers the way products are marketed to us influence our purchasing decisions.  However, it’s often difficult to know if a product is actually green or if it’s just greenwash.  To help you navigate labels, packaging and adverts I’ve started my new Greenwash 101 series, which aims to separate environmental fact from greenwash.

I’ll start with the main one that gets touted around: biodegradability.

Plastic bags, food wrappers, nappies and some other plastics are often labelled as biodegradable.  While manufacturers don’t explicitly say that these products are better for the environment, this choice of word implies that these are better choices for the environment.

Let’s take 5 minutes here to examine whether biodegradable plastics are good for the environment or whether it’s corporate greenwash.

greenwash 101

Are Biodegradable Plastics Good For the Environment?

Conventional Plastic Vs. Biodegradable Plastics

Firstly, let’s look at the difference between conventional plastics and biodegradable plastics.

Conventional plastics are made from petroleum based products derived from oil.  They will either take hundreds of years to break down or, in the worst case, never decompose.

Biodegradable plastics are made from conventional petroleum based plastics, but also contain chemical additives.  These additives cause the plastic to break down more rapidly when exposed to air and light, but could take anywhere between 2-5 years to break down, if not longer.

The other type of biodegradable plastic is known as bioplastic.  Bioplastics tend to be made from plant biomass, such as corn starch, sugar cane or wheat, and should either completely and rapidly break down naturally, or be compostable.

However, and it’s a big however, whether a product is biodegradable or not ultimately depends on where it ends up.

Let’s think about that last sentence for a minute, and think about where out waste goes.

Disposing Of Plastics

In order for biodegradation to occur three basic resources are required – heat, light and oxygen.  If a biodegradable plastic or bioplastic ends up in a landfill site it will never decompose.  In landfill sites waste is essentially mummified, in a complete absence of light and oxygen.  Food that has ended up in landfill will not biodegrade, so there is no hope for biodegradable plastics or even bioplastics.

You would think then that the answer is therefore to ensure that you always compost or recycle your biodegradable plastics.  Unfortunately it’s not that simple.

Biodegradable Plastic Disposal

Most biodegradable plastics are classed as code 7, which places them in the ‘Other’ category of plastics.  Code 7 plastics are generally not accepted for recycling by local councils.  This reason being behind this is that biodegradable plastics are harder to recycle due to the addition of chemical additives in them.

If you want to get round the landfill and recycling issues, and pop your biodegradable bags in your compost heap then you’ll also come a cropper.  Polyethylene, which is what biodegradable bags are commonly made from, often contains a manganese additive.  This additive stops breaking down when placed in compost bins/heaps.  Scientists think this most likely occurs due to the influence of ammonia or other gases generated by microorganisms in the compost.

Even if you were to get lucky on the composting front, and your plastics did break down then you will likely encounter another problem.  Because biodegradable plastics are made from petrochemicals they aren’t always suitable for composting, as they can leave behind chemical residues in your lovely compost.  The key lesson learned here is that biodegradable is not the same as compostable.

And there’s more.  Some biodegradable plastics actually fragment rather than biodegrade, due to the addition of oxidising agents (found in so called oxo-degradable plastics).  By fragmenting, rather than degrading, they break into small pieces which can pollute soils, increase risk of ingestion for animals and end up in our oceans and waterways.   These kind of plastics are impossible to recover for recycling and aren’t suitable for composting.

Bioplastic Disposal

At this point you might be thinking that surely bioplastics are a better environmental option?  The thing is, if bioplastics are sent for recycling, these types of plastic cannot be recycled with standard plastics as the additives in bioplastics can make the recycled product less durable.

Therefore the easy answer would be to ensure that you always compost bioplastics.  However  if you don’t have the ability to compost your waste (perhaps you don’t have a garden) then you are out of luck.

Don’t be so smug if you do have the ability to compost though: some bioplastics will only compost in commercial composters.  Commercial composters reach the kind of temperatures and humidity levels you would be unable to achieve in a standard garden composter, so your bioplastics may never truly break down at home.

If that isn’t enough of a headache for you, with bioplastics you also have the added headache on how the plant material that was used to create the bioplastic was grown.  Concerns include the use of GM crops, and the use of valuable farm land that could be used to grow food crops.  Other potential impacts of growth of bioplastics crops include, but aren’t limited to: deforestation, monocultures, use of fresh water supplies, soil erosion, fertiliser use (which often comes from petrochemical sources), pesticide use, food supplies, food prices and food security.  Makes for quite heavy reading, doesn’t it?

What’s The Answer?

I’m afraid to say that there is no easy answer to the plastics conundrum, apart from avoiding single use plastics where you can and recognising that if a product is labelled as biodegradable then it’s often not the environmental choice that it seems.

Biodegradable plastics are rarely recyclable, and biodegradable does not mean the same thing as compostable.  Compostable goods are often a better choice than biodegradable ones, but only if you can compost appropriately.

Composting nappies, for example, is almost never a good choice because of the mix you would need of green material (e.g. grass clippings, leaves, etc) to nappy.  Considering how many nappies a baby goes through in a day, you would need more than a few compost heaps and a ready supply of green material to be able to compost effectively.  A better choice in this example would be washable nappies.

Check back again soon for the next Greenwashing 101 installment!

Fashion, Life & Style, Resources

How To Shop Consciously For Fashion

how to shop consciously

how to shop consciously

I’ve got a great guest post for you today from Kamea Chayne, the editor of Konscious World and the author of Thrive: An environmentally conscious lifestyle guide to better health and true wealth.  Kamea is one busy lady and she is also the marketing manager of Ethical Writers Co.  

She’s taken time out of her schedule to write this post on how to shop consciously for fashion, which I’ve personally found very useful, so I hope you will too!

We shake our heads in disapproval when reading about social injustice.  We cringe in disgust when witnessing environmental pollution firsthand.  And we frown in unison when hearing the ever-more-alarming statistics on climate change.  Yet we often hypocritically contribute to many of these global social and environmental issues through something that touches upon all of our lives: fashion.

Did you know that the textiles industry is one of the largest polluters on earth, or that it is the fifth-largest contributor to carbon dioxide emissions in the United States?  Did you know that our clothes might have been made by underpaid, abused laborers in developing countries, or that they might be contaminated with toxic chemical residues from the dyes and treatments used to finish them?  Did you know that it takes a shocking 2,700 litres of water (enough to keep one person alive for three years) to grow the amount of cotton needed to make one single t-shirt, or that conventional cotton growing requires loads of toxic pesticides that eventually go on to pollute our fresh water sources?

The day I learned these dirty secrets of the fashion industry, my world turned upside-down.  How can something as (seemingly) innocent as buying new clothes with my friends turn out to be a potential act of harm?  This thought baffled me, and I knew there was no turning back.  Shopping would never be the same again.

Getting even a glimpse of what might happen behind-the-scenes in the fashion world made me realize how impactful our purchase decisions can be.  It also made me realise that we can no longer judge a product solely based on its physical properties and price tag, completely neglecting the history that comes along with it.

I concluded: we have to dig deeper; we have to ask questions; and we have to make our choices count.

By digging deeper to understand the histories of our consumer products, we can make more informed purchase decisions and pound (or dollar) vote for responsible businesses helping to drive positive change in our world.  In other words, we can shop our way to a better, healthier world by simply supporting companies that value not merely the bottom line (Profit), but the triple bottom line: People, Planet, and Profit.

Okay, but how?

While every conscious consumer might have his or her own approach to shopping more mindfully, here you will find a list of questions I personally ask before buying a fashion product:

1. What material is this product made of?

Check the fashion product’s tags for its material composition.

Prefer products made with low-impact, biodegradable, natural materials or recycled synthetic materials (see “Some healthier alternatives” within Table 1).

Avoid products made with virgin, non-biodegradable synthetic materials or high-impact, natural materials (see “Minimize” within Table 1).

Table 1. A shopping guide for Healthier Textile Choices

eco friendly textile choices

 2.  How was the product made?

Look for voluntary information provided by the company regarding where the raw materials came from, what dyes/chemicals were used, etc.

Prefer products made with natural finishes or dyes and products with credible certifications (see Table 2).

Avoid products with special properties such as stain-resistant, permanent press, anti-static, etc., and products with labels that provide no insight as to how it was made.

Table 2. Common Labels in the Fashion Industry

eco clothes labels explained

3.  Where was the product made?

Prefer products made regionally or imported products labeled “Fair Trade*.

Avoid imported products from the other side of the world that provide no information regarding how the product was made.

4.  Will I cherish this item? Is this a keeper?

Prefer durable, timeless, practical products you will wear 30+ times.

Avoid cheap, disposable, highly fashionable products you will wear only once.

5.  Does the company that made this product care about our world’s greater good?

Prefer products made by responsible companies transparent about their supply chain, supportive of social/environmental causes, and contribute to our world’s greater good.

Avoid products made by companies that show no regard for human or environmental health and make no effort to practice responsible business.

Although it’s not always possible to buy responsibly and transparently made products, realising how much power we each have as fashion consumers and starting to ask more questions like the ones I have provided are crucial first steps toward reshaping the fashion industry.

How do you make more informed consumer choices?

*The concepts and tables in this post have been adapted with permission from Thrive: An environmentally conscious lifestyle guide to better health and true wealth by K. Chayne.

Thanks Kamea!  You can learn more about Kamea here and follow her on Instagram and Twitter.