The truth about biodegradable plastics
What does it mean for something to be “biodegradable?”
The official definition by Merriam-Webster is “capable of being broken down especially into innocuous products by the action of living things (such as microorganisms).”
McKay Jenkins, a professor of English, journalism and environmental humanities, weighed in about the biodegradable plastic situation. Jenkins explained that the term “plastic” refers to a substance made from synthesizing chemicals into something else. A plastic is anything made from a wide range of polymers regardless of the ingredients.
“So you can make plastic out of petrochemicals [chemicals obtained from petroleum and natural gas], but you can also make plastic out of potatoes, corn and soybeans,” Jenkins said.
Jenkins said that the main reason for banning plastic bags is that they usually do not break down. However, when they do, they become microscopic and can disrupt the food chain.
“[A plastic bag] doesn’t look like a plastic bag anymore, it looks like a jellyfish and a turtle will eat what they think is a jellyfish,” Jenkins said. “But it’s plastic.”
Microplastics, called microbeads by the cosmetic industry, are small particles of plastic. They are usually less than 5 mm in size and do not decay in the environment. Marine animals often eat microplastic, thinking it is food.
“If [plastic] doesn’t break down it’s a problem, if [plastic] does break down it’s a problem,” Jenkins said.
According to Melanie Ezrin, a junior public policy and environmental science major, “biodegradable” means that plastic breaks down into “natural products,” meaning nothing chemical or artificial.
“[Biodegradable plastics] don’t decay the way people think they do,” Ezrin said. “You hear the word ‘biodegradable’ and you think of throwing an apple into the woods.”
Ezrin said that biodegradable plastics require a lot of heat to break down.
“You really have to break them down industrially,” she said. “If you just throw [plastic] in your backyard, it’s just going to stay [there] most of the time.”
Compostable plastics suffer from a similar issue in that they also need heat to break down. These plastics need to warm to at least 120 degrees to melt. Some people own backyard composters, but many models are not capable of reaching that high of a temperature, Ezrin said.
Jenkins said he owns a composter. He says it is good at burning food, but the “compostable plastic” he threw in has been sitting there for years. He believes it will eventually decay, but he agrees with Ezrin’s assessment.
Ezrin said there used to be a composting facility in Wilmington, but it closed because of how it was managed and smelled. Now, the closest location is located in Pennsylvania, but “far away.”
Researchers at the University of Plymouth in the United Kingdom tested the durability of several types of plastic shopping bags. The “biodegradable” bags were exposed to the environment for about three years. They found the bags intact and could still hold a full load of groceries. According to Ezrin, nothing will biodegrade immediately in nature. Even a piece of fruit could take upwards of a year to decompose.
“When people sell a product that’s ‘biodegradable,’ what that means is in an industrial capacity,” Ezrin said.
In a 2009 lawsuit, Kmart was one of three companies sued by the Federal Trade Commission for false advertising. Kmart claimed that its brand of disposable plates was biodegradable, but it did not have the scientific research to prove so.
“There’s a term for this, it’s called ‘greenwashing,’” Jenkins said. “[Greenwashing] is when you put a label on something to make people think it’s environmentally benign, when it isn’t.”
Jenkins said the Kmart lawsuit is a perfect example of greenwashing. However, this does not apply when companies say a product is “all-natural.” They are not breaking the law because the term carries no legal definition and is essentially meaningless. However, using the word “organic” is illegal, Jenkins continued to explain.
Now, various experimental products are on the market to help solve the plastic issue. The Coca-Cola Company came out with PlantBottle, a plastic bottle made partially from plant material. Although Coca-Cola said PlantBottle helped to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 315 metric tons, the issue that remains is the bottles are still plastic even though they break down into their plant-based products.
Skipping Rocks Lab, a company based in London, developed a product called Ooho!, which is a ball-shaped “edible water bottle” made from calcium chloride and brown algae. Ooho! still has kinks to be worked out. It reportedly tastes bland and feels like “breast implants or jellyfish,” according to its cofounder, Rodrigo Gonzalez.
Ezrin is the president of Students for the Environment (S4E), a registered student organization whose mission is to educate people about sustainability. They do so via activities and campaigns, such as creating sustainable candles and hygiene products. S4E is currently campaigning against the university’s use of inorganic pesticides on The Green.
“The most important thing people can do is reduce their waste,” Ezrin said. “I think everybody should be aware and emphasize the importance of purchasing reusable products and bringing them with you.”
Ezrin relayed a story about the prevalence of plastic. She went to the grocery store to buy sweet potatoes and found them wrapped in plastic. She considered this unnecessary as sweet potatoes already have a protective covering called the peel.
“One of the structural issues you’re trying to get at here is why there’s so much plastic in the world,” Jenkins said. “It’s not just that it’s convenient, it’s [also] because it’s very profitable for companies to sell plastic.”
Jenkins said that people should shop differently. They should go to different stores that do not force customers to buy plastic packaging for their groceries.
“People should just not buy plastic,” Jenkins said. “Convenience has come at a cost.”