Is Biodegradable Actually Better?

Hang on- in relation to what? Well we all know that card and paper for example are naturally biodegradable as they are compostable. But products now are shifting to using biodegradable plastic. This is where the term ‘biodegradable’ gets a  bit messy. So let’s ask, is biodegradable plastic better than the conventional plastic?

Our answer in short, is no. 


It’s a complex issue, and in order to start to answer this question, we must first understand the definition of biodegradable: ‘a substance or object capable of being decomposed by bacteria or other living organisms’. The term object or substance covers practically everything, and creates more questions with the use of the term ‘decomposes’. Usually when we refer to something decomposing, it’s relative to composting. It’s very important to note that just biodegradable is not the same as compostable. Looking at another definition – ‘a substance or chemical that is biodegradable can be changed to a harmless natural state by the action of bacteria, and will therefore not damage the environment’. Hang on, that can’t be right?

So the story we are sold is that biodegradable plastics are better for the environment than the conventional plastic. Naturally then, it’s made up of natural ingredients rather than the typical petrochemicals; but no! So enter the confusion between biodegradable and compostable.

As the definitions show, it is the act of an object decomposing and changing its state to harmless elements that makes it biodegradable- both biodegradable and compostable plastics do this (to a degree). To make it worse, when compostable plastic was created, it of course got a ‘sciency name’. This encompasses all the different types of raw materials used in its production – bioplastics. Sound familiar? Without knowing that they are different, if you went to a supermarket and found a product that is made from biodegradable plastic, it’s easy to miss-associate that with bioplastic. 

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SO WHY DO WE THINK THAT BIODEGRADABLE PLASTIC IS BETTER THAN CONVENTIONAL PLASTIC?

It helps ease our conscience. To us it seems that whilst the problem with plastic being dumped in the oceans is prominent, it is the harming of the animals that’s significant in getting people’s attention. The media we are bombards us with images and videos of animals being strangled and suffocated by plastic, and how they are simply eating it thinking that it’s a food source. Of course we all know that this is wrong, and we shouldn’t be inflicting this lifestyle onto ultimately helpless animals, just as a result of ours.

So, biodegradable plastic was created to prevent both of these situations from escalating any further. Or so we are led to believe. In truth, it doesn’t actually solve either of them. Unfortunately, despite which plastic you buy, it is likely that it will end up in the oceans. In this respect, it’s clear that we need to stay away from the material all together. But this is about biodegradable, so what are the benefits for the wildlife? Through decomposition, the plastic is broken up. Let’s use a plastic bag as an example. A petrochemical bag will be floating in the ocean for up to 1,000 years, slowly degrading into microplastics. A biodegradable plastic will break up much quicker. So there will be less visible plastic waste in our oceans, and the bag won’t be mistaken as a jellyfish for example. Not only that, but a petrochemical plastic bag can be consumed by an animal and then released when that animals dies and naturally decomposes. It’s then free to be consumed by another animal, with the process continuing for 1,000 years. (Of course this is relevant to any product, not just bags). Roughly 500 billion plastic bags are produced each year (around 1 million every minute). So every year 500 billion plastic bags are produced that last up to 1,000 years. 

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SO BIODEGRADABLE SEEMS SO MUCH BETTER AND COMPLETELY NECESSARY, RIGHT? 

This is where marketing is a brilliant thing. We are not really told anything about the material – we just hear it that it biodegrades quicker than petrochemical plastic and saves the animals. Sold? But it’s not as great as it seems. So we’ll be blunt. Biodegradable plastic is still petrochemical plastic. Both plastics are made from the same materials, our favourite friends, fossil fuels. So what is the difference? An additive that’s added during the production of biodegradable plastic. 

Let’s address the myth that biodegradable plastic is a new discovery and is all natural and fantastic. Are only biodegradable plastics biodegradable? Not really. Everything is biodegradable, it all breaks down. If manufacturing companies and authorities are going to tell us that biodegradable plastics are in fact degraded though the natural degradation process, then that encompasses all materials. Petrochemical plastic breaks down to exactly the same material as biodegradable plastic. The only difference is that there is no additive added into it to speed up the process. What does that mean then? That biodegradable plastics are only called that because of the additive added to them. It is this additive that supposedly makes them degrade quicker, although this also isn’t guaranteed. They allegedly break down in 6 months, however this isn’t strictly the case. There is no specific time frame due to the variety of products, and so they can break down anywhere between 6 months and 1,000 years. Confused? We are! 


LET’S ADD TO THAT CONFUSION FOR A MINUTE. 

When researching biodegradable plastics, we are actually thrown information about compostable plastics (bioplastics). Yes compostable plastics are biodegradable, but they break down naturally, essentially into compost. That’s very different to microplastics. But as both plastics biodegrade, they are often incorrectly grouped together purely as biodegradable plastics. Biodegradable plastics simply degrade down to the end point of microplastics, whereas compostable plastics go further; biodegradation is only part of the process. It composts into non-toxic organic matter, and is then used to fertilise crops – it’s a complete closed cycle production material. It’s clear to see where the confusion lies, but it’s crucial to note that biodegradable is not compostable

To make it clearer, let’s compare an animal carcass to plants, although it’s not pleasant. Animals are natural, we can all agree on that. When they naturally decompose after they die, they provide crucial minerals and nutrients to the soil that’s needed for plant growth. Plant’s do the same thing – they naturally decompose to create well known compost. Again, this is essential for plant growth. We don’t question this, we just know it’s ‘nature’. Unless it’s well hidden, there are no environmental benefits to fossil fuels. So when we are told that they break down naturally into a harmless natural state, we have to question it. In order to create plastic, fossil fuels are refined, have their state changed, have chemicals added and are then ready to be formed into products. This is not a natural occurrence, so how can nature reverse this? It’s simple. It can’t.  

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TIME TO ADD ANOTHER PROBLEM INTO THE MIX. 

So what we now know is that biodegradable plastic just degrades into the exact same microplastics as the regular plastic, and not necessarily any quicker either. What are the problems with the microplastics? This is a whole other discussion (4.2) but in short, everything.

Let’s forget about the health risks it poses to humans for a second, and the fact that the animals in the oceans are still eating plastic, and look at the waste argument.

Everyone at some point has said ‘oh I can’t see it, so it’s fine.’ Whether that be accidentally moving something under the sofa, or deliberately pushing boxes under your bed, it’s the same problem – it’s still there. It’s worse if it’s done deliberately, as you’re leaving it for another time to be cleared up by someone else. Let’s apply this to the microplastics. We know they’re there, manufacturers now they’re there, authorities know they’re there. The time for someone else to clear the mess up is now, and it’s us. The plastic waste is still in the oceans at the same level, but it’s not seen, so people who aren’t aware think that the problem has gone away.

In reality, the problem is still here, and it’s worse. Our oceans still need cleaning, and it’s a lot harder of you can’t see the litter! At least with regular petrochemical plastic it’s easier to collect it from the ocean’s surface or once it’s been washed up on a beach. But with microplastics being the size of a sesame seed (at their biggest), that’s not possible. There are ‘solutions’ currently in development to try and extract the microplastics. Whilst they are having some success, it’s on such a small scale that at the moment, it’s not making any change. Even if all the microplastics were removed from the oceans, where would they go? They are still there; they need storing; they will never be completely removed from existence. Wouldn’t it be good that instead of having to invest millions into fixing a problem that we have already created, we could invest it into making alternative materials to plastic? 

In addition to the difficulty in clearing the oceans, and that animals are unintentionally eating the microplastics, we are all aware of how producing plastic is bad for the environment. Whether you agree or not that plastic production needs to change, you have to agree that it is damaging and releasing dangerously high emissions that we simply cannot afford to have in our Earth’s current state. What is currently being researched, is the effect that it will have on the largest carbon sinks – the oceans themselves. To put it simply, the level of microplastics in the oceans means that the microorganisms at the very start of the ocean food chain, are eating plastic. This is a massive problem. They are crucial in the workings of the oceans being carbon sinks, and without them, the oceans simply wouldn’t be. This is new science, but the fact that there is potential evidence to support this, is very worrying. 


So we ask, how is this better than conventional plastic? If it takes the same amount of time to break down as regular plastics and the end result is the same, with just as bad if not worse secondary effects, is there really any point in creating it? This is such a complex issue that at the moment doesn’t have a clear answer, other than don’t buy regular petrochemical and biodegradable plastic! Whether you want to take action on plastics for yours, the animals, or our Earth’s health, let’s make sure we are doing it right! Say no to biodegradable plastics! 

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It’s important to note, that compostable products are often called biodegradable, because they need specific conditions to compost. This doesn’t make them biodegradable plastics – they are bioplastics. 

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