Biodegradable or Buzzword? Are “Green” Plastics Really Green?

With all of the concern over the ultimate fate of plastics, it’s natural that biodegradable plastics have taken center stage in the effort to protect the environment.

Unfortunately, the question quickly becomes, “Are biodegradable plastics really green?” or has “biodegradable” just become a very attractive word for people looking to make a quick buck on it?

According to most scientific studies done on the subject, the answer to both questions is “yes.”

The truth is that at the moment, truly biodegradable plastics mostly take the form of food containers, eating utensils, and compostable bags.

There are even biodegradable credit cards available today. To make sure that any product the consumer is purchasing is biodegradable, they should look for products that carry the logo of the Biodegradable Products Institute, which means that they have passed strict scientific guidelines. Any other plastic product, whether it carries the term “biodegradable” or not should be looked at with suspicion.

Image: flickr

Image: flickr

But Don’t All Plastics Eventually Break Down?

The question of how many years it takes for plastics to break down is one of considerable controversy. This is due primarily to the fact that no one really knows. To a great extent, how long it takes for plastics to break down is a mystery. It might take 500 years, or it might take 1,000 years.

What is certain is that conventional petroleum-based products never really disappear.

Even after time breaks them down into pieces that are too small to be seen with the naked eye, they are still there. Even some of the newest plastics that are designed to break down–which is not even really biodegradable–when exposed to the elements, are still there in chemical form.

Aren’t Plastics That Are Still There Chemically Better Than Remaining in Their Original Form?

This is another question about which there is considerable disagreement, even among members of the scientific community. Some plastics are worse for the environment when in their broken down form as opposed to remaining in their original form.

A good example of this is the untold tons of plastic wastes that remain in the oceans as a result of dumping. Once plastic reaches the oceans and waterways, they ultimately break down into pellets called nurdles which are poisonous and can work their way back up the food chain to present a health hazard to humans.

What is the Effect of Biodegradable Plastics?

When biodegradable plastics break down, they become three products, water, carbon dioxide, and biomass.

There are no chemicals to be left over as there are with other plastic products. Unfortunately, what is really a biodegradable plastic remains since copywriters often are guilty of twisting virtually anything into a more appealing form for the consumer.

As a result, some companies that claim to use biodegradable plastics as part of their products are, in reality, untrue, or misconstrued and as a result, misleading.

Doesn’t All Plastic Break Down Once It Reaches a Landfill?

What happens to wastes once they reach a landfill is another issue that is subject to a lot of misinformation. Plainly stated, nothing in a landfill ever really breaks down. In fact, to a great extent, most of the wastes that reach a landfill have very little exposure to oxygen, which halts the decomposition process.

The truth is that biodegradable plastics that reach a landfill emit methane, a greenhouse gas that is 23 times more powerful than CO2.

What is the Final Verdict on Biodegradable Plastic?

For all of the fuss over biodegradable plastic–what it is, what is and what is not, and what happens to it–the ultimate fate of biodegradable plastic is still problematic. Most people believe that once they throw out their biodegradable plastic (if it really is biodegradable), it will simply go away, never to be an influence again.

The truth is that even if a biodegradable plastic is thrown away, the best way to ensure that it does not create a hazard to the environment is to send it to a composting facility, which will make it end its days being eaten by microbes.

The trouble is that nationwide there are only 42 communities that offer commercial composting services. And even if you wanted to send out biodegradable plastics to the recycle bin in your community, most won’t separate it out for composting.

Ultimately, the fate of biodegradable plastics is in the consumer’s hands, but only if they handle it correctly.

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