What do you know about “Biodegradable”, “Bioplastics”, “Compostable”, or “Oxo-degradable”?

Are they really the solution to plastic pollution? Or are they just creating more problems for the environment instead?

First off, what is biodegradable plastic?

Biodegradable plastic is plastic that can be decomposed by the action of living organisms, usually microbes, into water, carbon dioxide, and biomass. It is produced with renewable raw materials, microorganisms, petrochemicals, or combinations of all three.

However, many biodegradable plastics worsen, rather than reduce the problem of plastic pollution as they break down into microplastics. 😱

Bioplastic is plastic made from plants, animals, or micro-organisms instead of petroleum.

It has two types :PHA, a class of biodegradable plastic that is naturally produced by various microorganisms and is often used in medical devices like sutures and cardiovascular patches, while PLA is made by extracting sugar from plants like corn or sugarcane and is commonly used in food packaging.

However, not all bioplastics are biodegradable.

So confusing right? We know.

For example bio-based PET is a non-biodegradable plastic. PET is a petrochemical plastic, derived from fossil fuels. Bio-based PET is the same petrochemical plastic however it is synthesized with bacteria.

There are a few types of biodegradable petroleum based-plastics such as PGA, a thermoplastic polymer that is used in medical applications; and PBS which is used in packaging films for food and cosmetics.

Other than biodegradable plastics, there are also other terms such as compostable, and oxo-degradable plastics.

But are they the same thing? Nope.

Compostable plastics require strict control of environmental factors, such as temperature, pressure, and nutrient concentration to break down into their organic constituents. These conditions can only be recreated in industrial composting plants, which are few and far between. Thus, some compostable plastics can degrade only under highly controlled environments.

Oxo-degradable plastics are just simply conventional plastics with additives that accelerate the oxidation process. While oxo-degradable plastics rapidly break down through exposure to sunlight and oxygen, they persist as huge quantities of microplastics as well.

All materials are inherently biodegradable, whether it takes a few weeks or a million years to break down into organic matter and mineralize. Therefore, products that are classified as “biodegradable” but whose time and environmental constraints are not explicitly stated are misinforming consumers and lack transparency.

In 2021, the European Commission's Scientific Advice Mechanism conducted an evidence review on biodegradable plastics and concluded that:

"Labelling plastic items as 'biodegradable', without explaining what conditions are needed for them to biodegrade, causes confusion among consumers and other users. It could lead to contamination of waste streams and increased pollution or littering. Clear and accurate labeling is needed so that consumers can be confident of what to expect from plastic items, and how to properly use and dispose of them."

We are all trying to find a better solution to help tackle plastic pollution, but what we can do right now, is start saying NO to single-use plastics and start upcycling instead.