The Difference’s Between: Degradable, Biodegradable and Bio Plastic / Compostable.

The Difference’s Between: Degradable, Biodegradable and Bio Plastic / Compostable.

With so many choices on the market about green alternatives and environmentally friendly plastic alternatives. We thought it would be a great chance to debunk some of these misconceptions and breakdown the true meanings and impacts of the different plastics we are using.

It won’t come as a surprise that many things plastic related frustrate us. Not many rank up there higher than seeing a retailers branding slathered all over their plastic bag. This is often accompanied by a little earth symbol in the corner and words something to the effect of this bag is degradable. For someone who is not well versed in the types of plastics, (lets be honest this isn’t the most engaging topic) this little Earth symbol and tag line might make you think the brand is trying to minimise their negative footprint, when in fact they might be making it worse. So lets breakdown the major types of plastic that are promoted as ‘better alternatives’.

Traditional Single Use Plastic (Including Bags, Straws etc)

              What is it?

Single use petroleum based plastic bags. The kind that supermarkets and other retailers used to give out millions of. They hang around in the environment for hundreds if not thousands of years.  This article by biologicaladversity.org (click here) states that it takes over 500 years for a plastic bag to degrade. From here it will not disappear completely, but break down into micro plastics, which will plague the world forever.

              Cons…

  • Petroleum based, relies on extraction of oil.
  • Ingestion/entrapment by animals and marine life.
  • Do not bio-degrade, but degrade and breakdown into micro plastics.
  • In Australia, we use around 6.9 billion plastic bags a year. In which 3.6 billion are plastic shopping bags. Statistics gathered from oceancrusaders.org (click here)
  • It costs the Australian Government around $4 million annually to clean up a small portion of these. This money is better served in other more practical areas.

Pros…

  • They may seem convenient at the time…… But at what cost? If you are middle aged with kids, then by the time they break down, your great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great grandchildren will be starting families of their own.
    • That is an exceptionally long time for them to start breaking down. That’s correct BREAKDOWN…
  • We cannot really think of anything else, but would be happy for you to leave a comment and tell us what positive benefits you believe they add.

Degradable Plastics

              What is?

Degradable plastic, like the one we mentioned above in the intro, often touts a little Earth friendly symbol. These bags are basically the same as the traditional plastic bags that we used to get from the supermarkets.  

Degradable bags are made from fossil fuel derived polymers such as PE (polyethylene), PP (polypropylene), and PS (polystyrene) with additives that enable the bag to break down into smaller and smaller pieces at a faster rate than traditional plastic. This may seem like a common sense and environmentally savvy approach, but it is in fact just as bad, if not worse than traditional plastic bags.

When these degradable plastic bags breakdown into micro plastics, they become small enough and easier to ingest by animals. This is a leading cause of death amongst sea creatures, like these baby turtles found off the coast of Australia (link here).

It is important for us to understand the full 360-degree view of our waste problem.

  1. We humans use a plastic bag for an average of 12 minutes per bag.
  2. We dispose of the bag. Sometimes this is in a reckless and irresponsible manner.
  3. The plastic bag enters our environment, including waterways.
  4. These degradable plastic bags start to breakdown into micro plastics.
  5. These micro plastics are ingested by animals and sea creatures.
  6. Humans then catch and process these animals and fish.
  7. We purchase these as meats and seafood from our local shop (remembering they had plastic in their systems).
  8. We then eat and ingest these animals/fish and the chemicals that entered their system through the plastic they ingested.
  9. Not only that, but we most likely purchased them from a shop and used a new plastic bag, which will then enter the environment…… Hence starting the cycle again!

Do not fall for marketing gimmicks around environmentally friendly degradable plastics. Do not fall for the pretty green planet earth picture that they plaster al over it, with false messaging. Be sure to keep an eye out and use proper green alternatives like home made fabric bags, bio-degradable and compostable bags.

              Cons

  • Labelling can be misleading. Marketing gimmicks, generally tell consumers that degradable products are environmentally friendly. They are actually the opposite!
  • Breaks down in smaller and smaller pieces more quickly contributing to the micro plastic problem.
  • Accelerates the rate that plastic is entering the food chain.
  • Hazardous to all the creatures we share the planet with.

              Pros

  • You get to carry things in them for a few minutes. Apart from that, ummm none….if you think of any let us know via the comments below.

Biodegradable Plastics

What is biodegradable?

The dictionary definition states: (of a substance or object) capable of being decomposed by bacteria or other living organisms and thereby avoiding pollution.

The Australian standard for biodegradable is quite a contentious subject as there is quite a lot of grey areas around it. Australian standard, allows the use of (in part) polyethylene, which is a derivative of petroleum.

The Australian Government needs to tighten up the standards on what is classed as bio-degradable.

Polyethylene is biodegradable by nature albeit over a longer period of time. This is where the Australian standard becomes blurry. Unlike places like the UK & US, where to label something as biodegradable, it must pass stringent testing to prove that it biodegrades naturally in a period of time (generally 3-5 years). Australian standards do not outline this level of testing, meaning it can label products as biodegradable, even if it takes 10-20 years?

Surely, we can be better than this? I think it is time for the Australian Government to stand up and make some more progressive changes to the current standards (most of which are dated 2005-2006).

Cons

  • Often mislabelled in supermarkets and not clear in the timeframes it takes to biodegrade.
  • Relies on agriculture which, depending on farming methods can negatively impact on soil.
  • Not all biodegradable items are created equal, overcome this by choosing certified biodegradable bags. Some can be labelled as **% biodegradable
  • The Australian Government is far too loose with its standards for certification of being labelled biodegradable. This needs the consumer to be far more educated on the matter. When in doubt, 100% compostable bags are the best method.

Pros

  • Breakdown much quicker than traditional and degradable plastics.
  • Are broken down by living organisms into organic material.
  • Are a more eco friendly option than degradable plastic bags and general plastic bags.

Bio Plastic & Compostable Plastics

              What is it?

Put simply bio plastics or compostable plastics are generaly made from plant based or organic material, often corn, sugarcane, straw, seaweed, woodchips, sawdust or food scraps.

Sugarcane and corn are the 2 main ways of manufacturing bioplastics, with over 50% of bio plastics in circulation, being of a starch base. To manufacture these starch based bio plastics, they are mixed with a biodegradable polyester, which gives it a bio degradable quality, whilst the plant based material is compostable.

They sound great in theory, but are they the great alternative they claim to be? Unfortunately, there are varying kinds of bio plastics which can lead to confusion for consumers.

Certain ranges of bio plastics are no different to your traditional plastic options, other than how and what they are manufactured from! These bio plastics do not compost nor biodegrade, they in fact break down into smaller microplastics. A lot of of local councils do not provide adequate abilities to recycle bio plastics or ‘7’ plastics as some of them are marked.

Some bioplastic is compostable, which is great but only if your councils composting facility is set up to process this type of material, you of course then need to carry it home to your compost bin if you don’t find one on your travels.

One thing that we find frustrating is that many cafes /shopping centres are moving towards these plastics, however they are not providing a compost bin, or adequate disposal methods for customers to correctly dispose of them. Therefore, at the end of their five minutes of use they will act like other plastics, polluting the environment, harming animals, contributing to landfill.

              Cons…

  • Uses agricultural land, fertiliser, pesticides etc to produce intensive farming practises are significantly contributing to climate change and depleting land.
  • Will not break down in land fill.
  • A lot of bioplastics act similar to normal plastic. Meaning a lot will not biodegrade, which contributes waste in the same way as normal plastics. I.e. breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces.
  • Currently classed as plastic number ‘7’ which can cause issues for the already struggling recycling industry.
  • Can create confusion, ie some are compostable some are not, often those that are, require industrial composting facilities.

              Pros…

  • Moves away from petroleum based plastic products.
  • Better utilisation of the agricultural waste products, meaning more efficiency and jobs.
  • When manufactured in a sustainable and environmentally ethical way; these plastics can be composted, which is ultimately the best alternative. Be sure to check packaging of any bio plastic alternatives, to see if it clearly states ‘compostable’.
Look for these kinds of symbols

Your best option is to purchase bio plastic alternatives that are clearly marked with a 100% compostable and 100% bio degradable symbol or logo. This will ensure you can use your plastic alternative guilt free and then dispose of it ethically.

Conclusion

There are a lot of plastic alternatives available now. Before you spend your money on something that claims to be better, take the time to read the packaging and look for certifications.

A great way to be certain is to test out the claims yourself, have a compost bin? Give it a whirl, chuck it in there.

There are definitely some better options available now; we use compostable bags ourselves.

Where possible it is still best to avoid plastics if you can, after all you will then be avoiding the resources and energy required to produce the bag or product itself. You will also get to avoid the minefield of plastics alternatives and determining which truly are better and live up to their claims.

Lastly, we believe that 100% compostable bio plastics are the best plastic alternatives available at the moment, other than avoiding plastics all together.

Whilst we hope that this information has been helpful the best way to minimise your impact is to avoid plastics wherever possible. Leave your comments below and let us know what alternatives you prefer?

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