Posts

Biodegradable Plastic: Is It REALLY Eco-Friendly?

If there’s one environmental claim that makes me nervous when I see it printed on plastic-like products and packaging, it’s “biodegradable”. Why? Because without context, this label is vague and potentially misleading.

A one-word label like this tells us nothing about the true biodegradability of a product. What does it biodegrade into? Toxic or non-toxic? How long does the process actually take?

Yet companies plaster it on their products in an effort to make us believe they are more eco-friendly. As customers, we gravitate towards these products, as we want to make better choices.

Of course, some companies are diligent and can back up their biodegradability claims with real evidence. But others are not.

For the average shopper, it’s hard to pick out the good claims from the bad ones.

This post will help make some sense of it all.

What Does “Biodegradable” Mean?

Biodegradation is a chemical process in which materials are metabolised into water, carbon dioxide, and biomass by microorganisms. Depending on the material, toxic residues may remain.

The process of biodegradation is influenced by a number of conditions, including temperature, humidity, oxygen levels, presence of bacteria and time.

But what does “biodegradable” mean when it’s printed on packaging, or on the label of a product?

There is actually no single common understanding or definition of “biodegradable”, so different companies will mean different things when they use this label. That makes it pretty confusing for us.

We might assume that if a product is labelled “biodegradable”, it will be non-toxic, it will break down in home compost bins, and / or it will break down quickly.

But this isn’t necessarily the case.

The good news is, if a product is truly biodegradable, the company should be able to provide details supporting this claim.

And by details, I mean scientific evidence. Not anecdotal claims by the company CEO that they put it in their home compost bin and it “disappeared”.

Real data, based on actual laboratory tests.

Biodegradable Standards: What They Are and What They Mean

Because there are no defined understanding around what “biodegradability” means, certification schemes have been developed based on scientific standards and testing.

Certification is a way for companies to back up the claims they make about the biodegradability of their packaging and/or their products with scientific data.

Whilst voluntary, these schemes are attractive to companies wanting to demonstrate environmental responsibility and safety of their products.

As consumers, knowing that the packaging / product is certified gives us piece of mind, and helps us make better purchasing decisions.

These are the standards to look out for.

Standards for Biodegradable Plastics:

There are a number of different standards for biodegradable plastics, with different certification schemes established by different certification bodies. There is currently no standard with a clear pass/fail criteria for the degradation of plastics in sea water.

Standards for home composting:

These standards are awarded to products that will break down in home composting systems.

Look out for these numbers stated on the product or packaging:

Australian AS 5810 “Biodegradable plastics – biodegradable plastics suitable for home composting”.

Belgian certifier Vinçotte had developed the “OK compost” home certification scheme, requiring at least 90% degradation in 12 months at ambient temperature.

Labels proving home compostability are Vinçotte’s OK Compost Home, the DIN-Geprüft Home Compostable Mark and the Australasian Bioplastics Association (ABA) Home Compostable logo.

Standards for industrial composting and anaerobic digestion:

These standards apply to products that will break down in industrial composting facilities or anaerobic digesters within a stated timeframe. (This is not the same as home composting, and these products may not break down in home compost bins.)

Look out for these numbers stated on the product or packaging:

European Standards EN 13432 / 14995 (13432 applies to packaging only, 14995 applies to plastics generally);

The Australian standard AS 4736 which additionally includes an earthworm test;

ASTM D6400 is the US standard with clear pass/fail criteria;

Japan has no accepted standard, but certification scheme GreenPla is widely used.

Labels proving compostability in industrial facilities are the ABA Compostable Seedling logo, the Vinçotte OK Compost logo, the DIN-Geprüft Industrial Compostable Mark, and the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) Compostable logo.

The catch with these products is that not everybody has access to industrial composting facilities. Even when they do, the timeframes required to break down these products (typically 90 days) are often much longer than the timeframes these facilities use per composting cycle. In short, these products may not biodegrade at these facilities and some facilities will not accept them.

Biodegradable Products Aren’t Perfect

Even where a product is certified as biodegradable, that doesn’t mean it is 100% biodegradable.

For example, for a product to comply with EN 13432 / EN 14995 standards, at least 90% of the organic material must convert into CO2 within 6 months in controlled composting conditions; and after 3 months’ composting and subsequent sifting through a 2mm sieve, no more than 10% residue may remain (as compared to the original mass).

The Japanese certification scheme GreenPla specifies the minimum level as only 60%.

“Biodegradable” doesn’t mean there are no heavy metals or toxic chemicals present. Each certification standard has its own permitted levels of metals including copper, nickel, cadmium, lead, mercury, chromium and arsenic: US standard ASTM D6400 has the highest permitted levels.

And if there’s no commercial composting facility in your area, it will likely end up in the bin.

Where possible, it’s always better to avoid packaging altogether.

Is “Biodegradable” Labeling Regulated by Law?

With no mandatory standards on biodegradability: however, there are guidelines about how the term “biodegradable” (and other environmental labels) can be represented so that they do not mislead consumers.

In Australia, the Trade Practices Act (1974) requires businesses to provide consumers with accurate information about goods and services. Businesses that make claims such as biodegradable on their packaging must ensure these claims can be substantiated. It’s the law.

Being able to substantiate claims is particularly important if the claim predict future outcomes, such as whether plastics will biodegrade or within a certain timeframe and under certain conditions.

Claims about biodegradability must:

  • Be honest and truthful;
  • Detail the specific part of the product or process referred to by the claim;
  • Use language the average member of the public can understand;
  • Explain the significance of the benefit but not overstate it;
  • Be able to be substantiated.

In Australia, the ACCC (Australian Competition and Consumer Commission) has taken action against a number of companies making misleading claims about biodegradability, including supermarket chain Woolworths.

Biodegradable Plastics: A Summary

Companies make unsubstantiated claims about biodegradable products all the time, sometimes deliberately but sometimes because they have a limited understanding of what it really means. Certification schemes are one way for us as consumers to pick out the good guys from the shady ones.

A product saying it’s “biodegradable” should specify what percentage the biodegradable content is, how long it take to break down, what it will break down into, and what conditions it needs to do so. (That’s what the certification labels are telling us.)

Look for products labelled “Home Compostable” first.

Bear in mind that even products that can be composted industrially may still end up in landfills, and  biodegradable plastics do not break down in the marine environment. A plastic bag will still look like a jellyfish to a sea turtle, whether it’s certified biodegradable or not – and biodegradable does not mean digestible.

If biodegradable packaging ends up as litter, it can be just as destructive and harmful as conventional packaging.

Certified biodegradable plastics are better than non-biodegradable ones, but they are not the perfect solution. Refusing, reducing and reusing are always better options, where we can.

How to Win an Argument about “Eco Friendly” Packaging

Despite the rather bold title, I’m really not out to start arguments. I’m definitely not out to pick fights. I’d much rather we all got along :) So what comes below isn’t actually about arguing.

It’s about helping others see our point of view when it comes to waste (and that includes eco-friendly packaging). “Eco friendly” packaging is something I get asked about a lot.

It seems that not a week goes by without me having a conversation with somebody about single-use packaging, and why it isn’t the wonderful convenience item that we think it is.

I do not know how many times I have been told by a helpful staff member when I refuse packaging that there is no need to refuse, because “it’s eco-friendly / we recycle / it’s biodegradable”.

I cannot count how often well-meaning friends have shared links about the latest and greatest edible or biodegradable alternative to single-use items with me, expecting me to declare the waste problem solved.

Five years ago, this was me. I thought that if it had “eco-friendly” printed on it (preferably in green and with a nice leaf logo), then it was eco-friendly. I was waiting for science to invent our way out of all of the world’s problems.

But then I looked into it. I started researching, and asking questions, and finding answers that I didn’t really want to hear.

And I changed my perspective.

I’ve put together some of the most common comments I hear and facts I’m told; here’s what I might say in response. They are talking points and things to consider. Hopefully they will help you have better conversations with others about why single use packaging isn’t as great as people think, even if it’s stamped “eco-friendly”.

And if the need arises, maybe even win some arguments ;)

A Word About Arguments

arguments-treading-my-own-path

We’re not really trying to win at arguments, we’re just trying to help others see things from a different perspective. There will always be people who disagree, and that doesn’t matter: some arguments aren’t meant to be won. Don’t try to convert the non-convertable. At either extreme of a point of view is everyone else, and these are the people to have conversations with. The people who want to do the right thing, but find the information available confusing. Maybe they put too much trust in others’ claims about their green credentials (that was definitely me).

  • Think About Where People Are Coming From.

Everyone has their own unique set of circumstances. People who work in the packaging industry won’t love the idea of banning bags or disposable packaging. People who are busy, stressed and tired are far less receptive to new ideas and “help”!

  • Make it About Values.

Whether it’s the caring for the environment, protecting wildlife, helping others, embracing creativity or better health, think about the values that motivate people. People who are motivated solely by their own self-interests are not as common as you might imagine, but if you do come across somebody like this, walk away. You’re better off using your energy elsewhere.

  • Be nice.

Nobody likes a smart-arse, and nobody likes to be made to feel small. Simple things such as smiling, open body language (no crossed arms!) and using helpful language will all assist in getting the message across.

Winning the Argument About “Eco Friendly” Packaging

disposable-coffee-cup-treading-my-own-path

This isn’t an exhaustive list by any means, but these are the questions I’m asked and conversations I have most often. I’d love you to add your own (questions you’ve been asked and answers you’ve given!) in the comments at the end :)

“But the packaging is eco-friendly!”

If, by eco-friendly, you mean not made with fossil fuels, that’s great! However, how is using resources (whether paperboard made from trees, or bio-plastic made from growing corn) to make single-use items that will be used for minutes actually eco-friendly?

Especially when you consider the planting, growing, harvesting, processing and shipping of these resources?

If you mean “eco friendly” because it’s biodegradable, are you ensuring that the packaging is composted? Are you personally composting it, or arranging for it to be so?

Plus did you know that some biodegradable packaging is made with fossil fuels?

If it’s just heading to landfill, that isn’t much more eco-friendly than just using regular packaging.

“It’s biodegradable so it will break down in landfill.”

Landfills aren’t big compost heaps, they are big tombs full of waste that are sealed. They are holes in the ground that are filled up, covered, and left for eternity. Waste breaks down anaerobically and very slowly, releasing methane (a greenhouse gas).

Nothing is breaking down to create space and allow more waste to be deposited. No goodness returns to the soil.

It’s a one-way system.

“It’s compostable.”

Being compostable is great, but only if it’s being put in the compost!

If it’s heading to landfill, it isn’t going to compost. If it’s put in the recycling bin, it isn’t going to compost. And depending on whether it needs hot composting or cold composting to break down, it might not even compost in the home compost bin. I wonder, what are the composting facilities like in your local town/city?

“Wait…Isn’t this disposable coffee cup made of paper?”

Sure, it looks like paper, but actually it has a plastic polyethylene lining. If you think about it, if it was only paper, the hot coffee would seep right through!

Being a mixture of materials, disposable coffee cups are difficult to recycle, so are likely to end up in landfill.

“I can plant this biodegradable coffee cup / coffee pod / other single-use item in my garden and it will grow seeds!”

I have no idea how many coffees you drink in a week, or how big your garden is, but are you telling me that every time you drink a coffee you’ll be planting the waste in your own back garden? That seems like an awful lot of effort to go to!

You could always use a reusable cup or plunger coffee, buy some seeds from the garden centre, and save yourself all that digging!

(Unless you’re just slinging it out of the window and hoping that it seeds… but that sounds like littering to me.)

If it’s still ending up in landfill, sealed underneath a layer of rock, there will be no seeds sprouting – it is just too deep and not the right conditions.

“It’s okay… I will recycle it.”

Recycling is better than throwing away, but it is still hugely energy intensive and in no way a perfect solution. Recycling isn’t a virtuous cycle: products don’t get recycled back into the same thing. Plastic in particular is downcycled (made into something of inferior quality.)

Your disposable packaging is likely made from brand new resources, and recycling them won’t stop new resources being used to create more disposable products.

Plus… is the material is even recyclable in your local area? Theoretically recyclable isn’t the same as actually recycled.

“It’s made with recycled content.”

Recycled content – so no new resources? Or just less new resources? What recycled content are you using, and what is the source of the materials? How are you collecting these materials – are they local, or from interstate, or overseas? How are they transported?

Is it 100% recycled content, or are you mixing some virgin product in there too? What percentage is recycled product? Can the product be recycled afterwards? Will it be? (Let’s not be theoretical about this!) What about the packaging – is that 100% post-consumer recycled content too?

Of course, from a waste perspective, single-use but with recycled content is still single-use.

“Paper bags use three times the energy to produce than plastic bags.”

True, paper bags are more energy intensive than plastic ones to produce, but that isn’t the whole story. Paper bags are made from trees or wood products, which is a renewable resource, and can be sustainable managed.

They are also biodegradable, don’t create long-term litter problems and don’t harm or suffocate wildlife. Plastic bags are made from fossil fuels and last forever.

Of course, reusable bags are even better!

Now I’d love to hear from you! This is by no means an exhaustive list so let’s make it bigger and better! Tell me, what are the most common questions that you’re asked? What answers do you give that seem to surprise people the most? Is there anything you’re unsure about? Any claims you’ve read or seen that you don’t know whether to believe? Anything you’d like more clarity on? Are there any of these reasons that (like me) you used to believe, until you looked into it a little bit more? Anything else you’d like to add? Please tell me your thoughts in the comments below!

Compostable plastics and bioplastics – and why they aren’t the “green” solution

Bioplastics and compostable plastics are sold to us as a green, sustainable solution. The solution to what, exactly? A solution to the tons of rubbish we send to landfill every year? A reduction in our dependence on fossil fuels? A safe alternative to the hazardous chemicals we add to conventional plastics? Actually, not quite. There’s a lot more controversy to these new plastics than you might think. Did you know that some bioplastics aren’t actually biodegradable, or even recyclable? Did you know that some compostable plastics are actually made from fossil fuels? Did you know that these plastics still require additives to infer specific properties (and to encourage degradation), and these additives may still be toxic?

Confused?

So was I. Fortunately, after a heck of a lot of reading and research, I’m feeling a lot clearer about it all, and hopefully after reading this, you will be too.

First up… Bioplastics

Bioplastics are plastics made from plants. That is all it means. Bioplastics may or may not be biodegradable, may or may not be compostable, and they may or may not be toxic as a result of other chemicals used in their manufacture.

Photo credit: Kingstonist.com via Flickr.

Photo credit: Kingstonist.com via Flickr. Making a difference…what does this statement mean? Is it biodegradable? Compostable? Recyclable? Messages like this are confusing!

The Terms: Biodegradable vs Degradable

Biodegradable means capable of being broken down by bacteria or other living organisms and returning to compounds found in nature. Degradable means capable of being broken down into smaller pieces. This is not the same as biodegradable. Photodegradable means capable of being broken down into smaller pieces by sunlight. Plastic generally breaks down into microplastics that do not break down further. Most plastics are therefore degradable, but not biodegradable.

Plastic #4 (LDPE or low density polyethylene) is made from fossil fuels; it is not biodegradable ,it is not compostable and it is not commonly recycled. Yes, it will degrade over time into thousands of micro pieces of plastic. How is that environmentally-friendly?

Plastic #4 (LDPE or low density polyethylene) is made from fossil fuels; it is not biodegradable, it is not compostable and it is not commonly recycled. Yes, it will degrade over time into thousands of micro pieces of plastic. How is that environmentally-friendly? Beware of greenwashing!

More Terms: Compostable vs Biodegradable

Compostable means capable of breaking down in a compost pile. Compostable plastic [as defined by the plastics industry] is “that which is capable of undergoing biological decomposition in a compost site such that the material is not visually distinguishable and breaks down into carbon dioxide, water, inorganic compounds and biomass at a rate consistent with known compostable materials”.  ‘Carbon dioxide, water, inorganic compounds and biomass’ technically includes every substance in the known universe and this definition allows compostable plastic to leave toxic residues whilst still being classified as compostable.

A plastic may be biodegradable but not compostable, meaning it will break down more slowly than would be expected in a compost pile, and may not disintegrate.

Commercial Composting vs Home Composting

Compostable bioplastics may require industrial composting facilities to break down. This means an active composting phase of a minimum of 21 days, with temperatures remaining above 60ºC for at least 7 days, and regular turning. Industrial composting works much faster and better than home composting systems, which generally do not reach the same high temperatures and are not regulated.

It is not always clear with compostable packaging whether an item can be composted at home or whether it needs an industrial composting system, and whether such systems exist. BioPak cups state “compostable and biodegradable” on their packaging, but a quick look at their website finds the disclaimer “BioCup are compostable in a commercial compost facility; however this option is not widely available in Australia”. This means most BioCups used in Australia will end up in landfill, where they won’t break down.

Corn compostable cup after 2 years of composting

Compostable Corn Cups After 2 Years in a Compost Bin

Photo credit: Zane Selvans via Flickr. These Caltech cups are made from corn-based plastic. Caltech don’t compost these themselves (so most will be sent to landfill). To see how compostable they were, Zane put six of the cups in his very active compost pile at home (which reached 70°C a couple of times) and left them for two years. After two years, this is what they looked like.

Biodegradable Plastic

There are two categories of biodegradable plastic, and only one is made from plant materials (bioplastic). The other one is made from petrochemicals (this means fossil fuels).

Oxo-biodegradable plastic is a petroleum-based plastic made from fossil fuels (usually oil and natural gas) with metal salt additives that enables the plastic to degrade when subject to certain environment conditions. This is a two-stage process: following fragmentation, the plastic biodegrades by the action of microorganisms.

Some critics argue that oxo-biodegradable plastics are not actually biodegradable at all, because it is not clear how microorganisms actually break down the microplastics. If polymer residues remain alongside biomass, this would be disintegration rather than biodegradation.

Hydro-biodegradable plastics are plastics made from plant sources such as starch. Hydro-biodegradable plastics tend to degrade and biodegrade somewhat more quickly than oxo-biodegradable ones but the end result is the same – both are converted to carbon dioxide, water and biomass. Hydro-biodegradable plastics can be industrially composted.

PLA (polylactic acid) is the most commonly used bioplastic (polylactic acid) and costs 20% more than regular plastic. PHA (polyhydroxyalkanoate) is a more temperature resistant bioplastic, and the only bioplastic that will decompose in soil and waterways, but it is more than double the price of regular plastic and less common. PLA will not biodegrade in waterways or the ocean.

 What about Recycling?

Oxo-biodegradable plastics cannot be recycled.

The bioplastic PLA can, in theory, be recycled. However, it is grouped under the plastic resin code #7, or “other” along with all other plastics that do not fit into the 6 major plastic types. (Click here to read about the different plastic categories in more detail). This means it needs to be separated from the regular recycling stream which requires technology such as infrared to be sorted correctly. In fact, PLA plastics often contaminate other plastic recycling steams.

Photo credit: Fiona Moore via Flickr. A PLA 'Ingeo' bioplastic lid. Plastic type #7 (or 'other') is not recyclable.

Photo credit: Fiona Moore via Flickr. A PLA ‘Ingeo’ bioplastic lid. Plastic type #7 (or ‘other’) is not recyclable.

Additives

As with other plastics, bioplastics still require additives to infer specific properties, and these additives may not be biodegradable, or tested for safety. Natureworks, the largest manufacturer of PLA in the world, state on their website “Although PLA has an excellent balance of physical and rheological properties, many additives have been combined with it to further extend the range of properties achievable and thus optimize the material for specific end use applications.” For bottles made with their PLA ‘Ingeo’ plastic, Natureworks suggest these “basic” additives are used:

  • Toner and colourant: without additives ‘Ingeo’ is slightly yellow, and adding a toner can make the plastic colourless and more appealing to customers. Alternatively they may be used to make the plastic a different colour.
  • A reheat additive can be used to make the heating process more efficient whilst molding the bottles.
  • A UV Blocker will be required if the product is sensitive to UV light, or in order to prolong shelf life.
  • Oxygen absorbers can be added to protect products sensitive to oxygen.
  • A slip or process aid can be added to help prevent bottles scuffing and scratching during manufacture, packing and transport.

Anything else?

Manufacturing bioplastics is a complicated and energy-intensive process, and still depends on fossil fuels. In addition to the manufacturing processes themselves, energy is required to power farm machinery needed to sow and harvest crops used as the raw materials, and also for transportation. Fossil fuels are also used to make fertilisers and pesticides to used to increase crop yields.

Another question often raised is whether it is appropriate to use vast areas of land suitable for agriculture to grow crops to make plastic rather than for food production.

What about genetically modified food? NatureWorks, the largest PLA producer in the world, is an American company that uses corn to manufacture bioplastic. 30% of all corn grown in the USA is genetically modified, meaning GM corn is used in the manufacture of NatureWorks bioplastic. Whilst the final products are chemically altered and free from GM products, these bioplastics are still supporting the GM industry.

The Verdict?

Whether we’re talking conventional plastics or bioplastics, there’s nothing green or sustainable about using these materials for a matter of minutes and then throwing it away. Whilst bioplastics may have the potential to be composted and decrease the landfill burden, their manufacture and transportation is still hugely dependent on fossil fuels, and they still contain undeclared additives that may leach into our food, or our soils. The reality is that most of these bioplastics don’t end up in composting facilities, but head to straight to landfill, or worse, end up as litter.

If you truly want to be sustainable, don’t use plastic, and don’t use bioplastics either, especially for single-use disposable items. Simply bring your own.