The problems with bioplastics
When you think of compostable plastics, do you imagine a pristine green field filled with freshly-composted biodegradable plastic bags and bottles? Or maybe a large industrial facility where various types of plastic waste are converted into plant fertilizer through an intensive process? You may not even realize how pervasive these materials are in your daily life.
Plastics are inexpensive to manufacture, durable, and versatile—making them some of the most useful materials in modern society. However, they can also be harmful to the environment if not properly disposed. Compostables offer an alternative for companies looking for ways to reduce their environmental impact by reducing the amount of traditional plastics that end up in landfills or oceans. But just because something is advertised as "biodegradable" doesn't mean it's actually good for our planet! In this article we discuss what makes compostable plastics so enticing (and why it matters), how backyard composting differs from industrial facilities when processing organic waste materials like food scraps and yard trimmings into nutrient rich soil amendments, how curbside collections impacts the confusion of compostable plastics, and why knowing the difference between conventional plastic production methods vs alternative ways is crucial when making decisions about what products we use each day.
The Greenwashing of Plastics
Greenwashing is a form of spin or false advertising in which the basis for green marketing is not supported by actual environmental benefit. It's a way to make something look more environmentally friendly than it actually is. Greenwashing can also occur when a company chooses to continue with production as normal, utilizing the same fossil fuel based packaging for most of their products, while opting to also try and market to a subset of the economy using “compostable plastic” instead of traditional plastic.
Greenwashing has become an increasingly common phenomenon in recent years as we're inundated with marketing campaigns claiming that that some product or service is better for our health, our planet, and even our children. Often it's used to sell products that don't actually serve any real purpose beyond making money—for example, companies will produce plastic bottles labeled "BPA-free" even though BPA isn't really harmful in low doses anyway. Another example would be glass bottles made in Oregon labeled as made from 80% recycled glass. This is the minimum standard set in Oregon, therefore all glass bottles SHOULD be made from a minimum of 80% recycled glass.
This practice can also be seen among plastics manufacturers who want to convince consumers their products are good for the environment despite not being so at all; they just want us to keep buying their stuff so they can make money! These kinds of claims have been called "greenwashing" since the 1980s when this type of deceptive sales pitch first started becoming popularized across industries ranging from food production all the way up through political campaigning (you know how much you love those ‘eco-friendly’ politicians).
What is Greenwashing?
Greenwashing is the act of misleading the public into believing that a company's products or policies are environmentally friendly when they are not. It's also known as eco-hypocrisy, and it comes in many forms. A company might say their product is made from recycled materials without disclosing all the other ingredients used in its manufacture, such as plastic or metal. Or they might claim that their packaging is made from 100% recyclable material when it really only contains 10% post-consumer recycled content—the rest being virgin materials like glass, paperboard and plastic resins.
Greenwashing can also occur when companies make dubious claims about sustainability practices at their own facilities to make consumers think these practices are more widespread than they actually are: for example claiming that 100% of water faucets have been replaced with low-flush models even though only one bathroom was upgraded when construction crews were working nearby; making general statements about "environmental impact" without giving specifics about what those impacts actually mean for example saying things like “our production facility has reduced carbon emissions by 35% since 2010” without specifying what kind of measures were taken.
The Greenwashing of Compostable Plastics
Compostable plastic #7PLA is the most commonly used type of bioplastic. Compostable plastic is made from renewable resources such as corn starch or sugarcane, which makes it eco-friendly. However, most compostable plastic is not compostable at home. In order to be truly "compostable," a material must break down completely within two years in an industrial composting facility. Though compostable plastics may still degrade eventually in your backyard pile, it takes much longer than two years and requires fine tuning during the composting process—not something most people have time for!
Another not so friendly impact of compostable plastics is the vast quantities of agricultural land needed to produce enough raw materials to be processed into bioplastics. In addition to the pesticides and herbicides sprayed all over the crops -since most crops used for bioplastics are genetically modified. Lastly would be the necessary fossil fuels used to produce the crop to begin with, generally exceeding the volume of fossil fuels used to make an equivalent amount of plastic.
The most common types of compostable plastics are:
Thermoplastic Starch-based Plastics (#7 TPS)
Polyhydroxyalkanoates (#7 PHA)
Polylactic Acid (#7 PLA)
Polybutylene Succinate (#7 PBS)
Polycaprolactone (#7 PCL)
The "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" Tagline
The “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” tagline is a familiar one. It’s been used to encourage waste reduction since the 1970s and has become shorthand for how we should think about our waste management practices as consumers. The three Rs are a commonly accepted hierarchy for managing waste, but does it accurately reflect how effectively plastics can be reused or recycled?
What do these terms mean? Reduce means to use less of something; reuse means to use something again; and recycle means to use something again (but not necessarily in its original form). This simple definition makes it easy to understand why people might assume that recycling can fix any problem with plastics in general—it seems like an obvious solution. However, when we dig deeper into what makes up the recycling process and what kinds of plastics are being collected by curbside programs around the world—as well as what happens once they’re collected—it becomes clear that there are huge gaps between our perception of recycling versus industrial composting and the reality of each industry.
The Consequences of Greenwashing Plastics (Greenwashing the Public)
The public is being misled by companies who are greenwashing their products. Greenwashing the public causes people to believe that they are making a difference in the environment, when in reality they are not. Greenwashing the public is not a good thing for the environment. Bioplastic contaminates the recycling stream and will create additional methane gas in landfills, which worsens global warming since methane is a more potent climate change agent compared to carbon emissions.
Greenwashing relies on the consumer to not do their research and to take the word of a marketing campaign instead of the truth. Greenwashed products cause more harm than good because they create an illusion that buying something green will reduce your environmental impact while still polluting at an alarming rate. In addition, consumers are more likely to purchase excessive amounts of packaging or item believing that making the swap reduces their carbon footprint and impact on our planet.
What Does it Mean to be Compostable?
While compostable plastics are not recyclable, they are technically degradable. However, these plastics do not break down in natural environments and are often processed into smaller pieces; which may consist of fossil fuel plastic pellets, rather than get completely broken down. Additionally, composting is a process that takes time—often weeks or months—and requires specific conditions such as moisture and oxygen supply to occur at optimal levels. If conditions aren't just right for composting, then you can end up with smelly piles of trash instead of nutrient-rich soil!
Compostable plastics also have limited applications: the majority of which only degrade when processed in large industrial facilities that have the ability to regulate heat and control the movement of air through the material (i.e., an industrial-scale composting facility). The idea that consumers will be able to dispose of their plastic items responsibly by throwing them into their backyard compost pile is unrealistic because most home systems don't allow for ideal temperatures needed for breaking down compounds within plastic materials. It should be noted that Sanipac and the majority of Waste Connection’s compost haulers have banned consumers from putting bioplastics in their curbside bins. Most industrial composting facilities do not want bioplastics in their raw feed stock since there is a high potential that there will be remaining fossil fuel based pellets used in the manufacturing of more than 70% of bioplastics.
Backyard Composting and Compostable Plastic
Compostable plastic is made from ‘renewable resources’ and often contain fossil fuels like petroleum or methane. Compostable plastics are not necessarily better than traditional plastics, because they don't break down in the environment. This is the subtle message that most consumers do not recognize on the packaging, as it is generally in minimal print size. If you attempt to compost most of these in your backyard, you will inevitably find plastic particles for years or decades to come.
If you have bioplastics, and would really like to compost them yourself, you will need to look for Biodegradable Products Institute certified compostable products. Please also note, you will need to look for a designation that states that it is compostable in your backyard.
Industrial Composting Facilities
Industrial composting facilities are able to handle a much larger volume of waste than backyard composting. Currently there are only 185 commercial composting facilities in the United States. Many of which do not accept bioplastics. This obviously creates a waste management and reduction problem since manufacturers continue to produce bioplastics at a rate that far exceeds the capacity and capability of our infrastructure.
The average residential composter is typically not set up to handle anything other than food scraps and yard trimmings, whereas industrial facilities are able to process all sorts of material including plastics. These larger scale operations also have the capacity to accept more kinds of waste, including plastics made from plant-based materials such as PLA, which some consumers may prefer over traditional plastic because they're often marketed as biodegradable.
For example, San Francisco's Recology runs multiple facilities across California that take in all sorts of organic matter (including food scraps) and convert it into fertilizer for use in agriculture or landscaping projects around the state; their San Jose location alone handles more than 500 tons per day—enough waste to fill seven Olympic swimming pools! Although these large-scale facilities cost more money upfront than backyard composters do initially—they require equipment like trucks or rail cars capable of transporting large amounts at once—over time they end up being cheaper since there are no ongoing costs associated with running them. In addition companies like Compost Cab charge customers based on how much weight has been put into their bins during collection days (rather than charging by volume/gallons/etc.). This means less hassle for customers who don't want any part-time jobs doing yard work just so they can properly dispose garbage without costing themselves too much money!
Knowing the true meaning and impact of "compostable plastics" vs. traditional plastics is imperative in making informed decisions to protect our environment.
Compostable plastics are not a solution to the plastic pollution crisis. Compostable plastics are not biodegradable, but rather break down into tiny fragments that persist in the environment long after they have been thrown away. Additionally, compostable plastics cannot be recycled like traditional plastic bottles and containers can be—and even if they were recycled, they would still end up in landfills because they are unable to be broken down by machines at recycling facilities. Furthermore, the potential for contaminated feedstock causes a situation where truly recyclable materials may get contaminated by bioplastics, causing the entire load to be sent to a landfill. Compostable plastics should never be used in backyard composting bins as they do not decompose and will generally persist in your bin or pile for months or years to come.
As consumers continue to make more environmentally conscious decisions, it is important that we understand the true meaning behind "compostable plastics." The more we know about these products, their benefits, land use, and drawbacks, the better we can make informed decisions about what type of plastic should be used in our households and around our communities.
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