This blogpost has been coming for a while now. In my daily life I am confronted with plastic all the time even though I try to avoid it. In stores, restaurant and on the market to name a few examples. Usually people respond in a positive way when I manage to avoid plastic, they think it’s a noble goal. However, sometimes I get a different response. Not a negative one. Just, different. Like the other day when I sat at Bagels & Beans and I asked for a smoothie without a straw. The waitress said: Don’t worry, they’re biodegradable! Nice try, but I still refused the straw. I am not a fan of biodegradable plastics at all. Today I’ll tell you why.
What is Biodegradable plastic?
Let’s start at the beginning. According to the University of Wageningen there is no unambiguous definition of biodegradable plastics, it’s written in this report. That’s where the problem starts. If you can’t define what it is, then how can all biodegradable plastics be the same and be regulates? It can’t. The name is totally useless. It degrades? Into what? Anyhow, the University of Wageningen did try to give a definition in the report which is this:
‘Biodegradable plastic is plastic which can be broken down by micro-organisms (bacteria or fungi) into water, naturally occurring gases like CO2 or methane or into biomass’University of Wageningen
It really depends on what’s inside of the products before the degrading happens. This determines what it will be turned into and whether there will chemical substances released. Biodegradable plastics are usually seen as a sustainable alternative to ‘regular’ plastics.
Why Are Biodegradable Plastics Not the Solution?
A while back I wrote this post, I listed all the reasons to ditch plastic. And so, I try to avoid it where I can (I bet you didn’t notice that yet). When it comes to biodegradable plastics I do the same thing because I think they suck, alike ‘regular plastics’. Today I’ll tell you why.
1 Specific Conditions
In the report I mentioned above it was stated that biodegradable plastics can degrade. It can actually disappear one day. ‘Regular’ plastics can’t, so this is actually a little bit better. I have to admit that. However, the conditions to degrade biodegradable plastics are really specific. The temperature, the amount of oxygen and water and the presence of micro-organisms have to be just right. In every different situation the product will therefore react differently. In the ground, on the ground, in water, on a composting pile, etc. The fact is, when it ends up in the environment nothing happens because the conditions are not right. So just like plastic it pollutes. However, most people don’t know this and therefore grow it on the ground under the notion of: ‘it’s biodegradable’.
2 It is Not Regulated (Yet)
As I said, because there is no definition and standard, biodegradable plastics can’t be regulated. There are a few certifications out there, but those are only for industrial composting in special machines. There is no label for biodegradable plastics that end up in the ocean. Most reports say that we don’t really know wat happens in that situation. But since the degrading conditions are very specific I think I know what happens: nothing. And that means animals still choke on plastics and die. I don’t have to tell you that this is terrible.
3 Industrial Composting
As I said, if a biodegradable plastic has a label it’s usually says that it can be composted in industrial composting machines. I don’t know about you, but I don’t have a gigantic industrial composting machine in my home. And so, there is nothing I can do with the plastic. I can’t separate it, there is no recycling option for biodegradable plastics to be found anywhere in the Netherlands. It can’t be thrown in with the plastic ‘recycling’ and so it still goes to landfill.
4 CO2 or Methane
As you can read above in the best definition the University of Wageningen could come up with, if biodegradable plastics are actually degraded this can result in CO2, methane or biomass. As we all know, we don’t need more CO2 or methane in the air. We’re already facing extinction because of the climate crisis. Let’s not add more. And if we can turn biodegradable plastics into biomass we’re going to use that as an energy source. This will then again release greenhouse gas emissions. I am also not a fan of biomass either, more about that later.
5 Not 100% Biodegradable
Since there is no regulation on biodegradable plastics, every biodegradable plastic is different. In most cases it’s not even 100% degradable. In some countries biodegradable plastics need to be able to degrade for only 60%, in other 90%. For this to be a positive thing I would want it to be 100%, duh. Also, every certification, country and company has different rules on the amount of chemicals that is allowed to be used in biodegradable plastics. The term is just still very vague. There is just no clear and universal answer to the question: what is it?
6 Pointless Effort
This argument is also in my plead against ‘regular’ plastics. Why do we make so much effort for a product which is usually a single-use product? It will never make sense to me. Think about a straw. Yes, it is ‘biodegradable’ (whatever that means) now, but it is still single-use. We produce it, pack it and ship it (simply said) for us to use it for 10 minutes and then get rid of tit. We keep ourselves busy with a proces which can be eliminated. We can so much bette. We can do so much more with our time, raw materials and labor. Even if biodegradable was 100% degradable and would totally disappear with no impact whatsoever (which is obviously not the case), then still I’d think it would be a waste of effort. We have so many bull-shit jobs in our society. People have burn-outs and spend less time on their health or with their family. But at the same time we’re working on things that we simply don’t need. It’s ridiculous.
7 The Input of Biodegradable Plastics
If biodegradable plastics are not made out of oil, like ‘regular’ plastic, then it has to be made of something else. And in most cases it’s not 100% degradable and so it’s still partly made out of oil, don’t forget. However, that something else is usually food (starch to be precise). This has to be grown. It takes water and land (and the food system as we have it now degrades the soil). So we’re going to grow food, to make a biodegradable single-use product out of it and then we’re going to throw it away? All this, while people are starving (even though overpopulation is not the problem, our diet is)? Let’s first fix that problem. And even if we fix that problem, then still we should not use land and water to make disposable items. We can use it for so much more. To let nature thrive for example.
Is It Only Negative?
That’s my plead as to why we should avoid biodegradable plastics. It all sounds very negative. And it is, my position about it is negative. I think this stuff is not the solution at all. However, I do have to admit that it is a tiny bit better than ‘regular’ plastics. With this stuff there is the possibility of collecting it and degrading it for the most part. With ‘regular’ plastics we can’t, we have to burn it (and still then it’s not gone). It’s a tiny, tiny step. The solution is however something else. A circular economy. Reusing products and having no single-use items. And the reusable products should be made out of 100% recyclable materials, like glass. So that when it breaks it doesn’t pollute. The solution is to reuse and consume less. Bring your own linen bag to the store and order groceries in glass (at Pieter Pot for example). We’re making this very hard while it doesn’t have to be. We need to go back to basics.