Doesn’t the “biodegradable” label make you exude a sigh of relief? You can now purchase whichever item you’ve been perusing with a clear conscience and secure sense of pride. As reports surface about our plastic trash’s effect on the planet, many people are turning towards biodegradable plastics instead. The massive environmental hazard our collective plastic waste poses when it ends up in our landfills and oceans is no secret. One little word on the side of a plastic item or piece of packaging makes consumers feel safe in the belief that they aren’t contributing to the gargantuan amounts of plastic floating in our seas which carry serious risks for marine environments.
Unfortunately, new research reveals that this is yet again a harmful instance of “greenwashing,” i.e. the process of marketing something as eco-friendly when it really isn’t. You see, plastic does not biodegrade as one might imagine. Rather than completely dissipating or breaking down, plastic simply breaks into smaller and smaller pieces through the process of photodegradation (exposure to sunlight). As such, the term biodegradable doesn’t really cover what happens to plastic products as they never turn into organic compounds that can go back into the natural environment. Research has also suggested that “technological solutions” appeal to consumers because they remove personal responsibility and thus the need for behavior change. In this sense, the “biodegradable” label on plastic items may actually encourage consumers to buy more plastic and pay less heed to proper disposal.
Not so Degradable After All
A new report published by the UN has found that the conditions necessary for plastic to fully biodegrade are “rarely, if ever, met in marine environments.” Indeed, certain polymers require prolonged exposure to industrial composters and temperatures of above 120° F to fully disintegrate. While these commonly used plastics do biodegrade in landfills, they break up very slowly in the ocean — over hundreds to thousands of years! — and never fully go away.
The study entitled “Biodegradable Plastics and Marine Litter. Misconceptions, Concerns and Impacts on Marine Environments” also cites evidence suggesting that consumers are more inclined to take less care to dispose properly of a product if it is labeled “biodegradable,” consequently leading to more plastics ending up in the world’s waterways and ultimately, in the sea. The widespread adoption of these plastics is, therefore, likely to contribute to marine litter.
What Does This Mean for Our Oceans?
The UN Environment Program (UNEP) estimates that as much as 20 million tons of plastic find their way into the world’s oceans each year. “Once in the ocean, plastic does not go away, but breaks down into microplastic particles,” explains Achim Steiner, the Executive Director of UNEP. The issue of microplastics has gained increasing prevalence in recent years. These minuscule plastic beads — up to five millimeter in diameter — are either manufactured especially to be used in toothpaste or facewash as extra cleaning agents or are the result of larger bits of plastic breaking down.
Various marine organisms — for instance, mussels, worms and zooplankton — and animals — fish, turtles, whales and seabirds to name a few — end up ingesting these plastic particles, which can kill them or cause them serious damage and subsequently compromises the marine ecosystem as a whole. Up there with plastic microbeads in the tally of environmental degradation are plastic bags. Other forms of plastic packaging such as six-pack rings, nets, bottles and containers among others are just as harmful to marine life, as are the variety of other consumer items made out of the ubiquitous material which end up in the ocean. Not to mention that whether or not it is recyclable, biodegradable or neither one of those, plastic production is an energy-intensive business requiring massive amounts of oil and emitting tons of carbon.
So… What Can Be Done Instead?
As Steiner states, this recent report “shows that there are no quick fixes and a more responsible approach to managing the lifecycle of plastics [is necessary] to reduce their impacts on our oceans and ecosystems.” In other words, taking steps to change our lifestyle is the only way to curb plastic pollution.
This recent study comes hot on the tails of another which also found fault with biodegradable plastics. Moral of the tale: there is no magical type of plastic that will simply volatilize the moment we are done using it. Biodegradable plastic may not biodegrade, and recyclable items may never find their way into a recycling plant. In fact, as much as we’d like to believe that most of the plastic waste we throw out is carefully reprocessed, only nine percent of it gets recycled. The rest ends up in the ocean: an estimated 270,000 tons of plastic float on its surface and directly threaten 700 marine species with extinction.
The simplest way to limit the amount of plastic ending up in the ocean is to reduce our personal plastic consumption. While going fully plastic-free is a challenge, we can strive to reduce our plastic footprint to its bare minimum. While we may not be able to single-handedly stop large corporations from manufacturing and overselling plastic bottles, what we can do is make everyday conscious choices regarding plastic usage. Best of all we can start now.
Skipping Plastic for the Planet
Using less plastic may seem like a daunting task, but we are quick to forget that we went a long time without it. Just 60 years ago, commercial plastics didn’t even exist. Plastic bags were only introduced in grocery stores in the 1960s. In the past 30 years alone, the quantity of plastic produced in the world has surged by 620 percent. What in the world did we do before then? Nothing inconceivable, as it turns out. People simply used grocery bags made of cloth, metal containers and glass jars, all items we can still easily find and work into our daily routine nowadays.
Aside from helping the environment, limiting your plastic use can come with a host of unexpected benefits, including saving you money while cleaning up your diet and conscience. Switching out plastic from your daily routine can help you avoid harmful substances lurking in commercial cosmetics and cleaning products. By encouraging you to shop in second-hand stores and buy less, it will also help you save money and space. You may also spend less time at the supermarket, supporting local cooperatives or markets instead. In your new quest to avoid plastic packaging, you’ll probably also find yourself buying less processed snacks and sweets you don’t really need or want, privileging whole foods or healthy homemade treats instead.
For some more useful tips on replacing plastic in your day-to-day routine check out these 20 Switches to Get Plastic Out of Your Life. Beginners may find these handy hacks a helpful resource to ease you into reducing your plastic waste. Or feel free to jump right in and check out these 8 Innovative Ways to Cut Plastic Out of Your Life and these 10 Life Hacks to Help You Cut Plastic Out of the Picture.
Let’s #CrushPlastic! Click the graphic below for more information.
Lead image source: EpSos.de / Flickr