The Unfortunate Truth About MOST Biodegradable Plastics

Plastic film wrapped bails of hay.

Plastic film wrapped bails of hay.

UPDATE: THERE MAY BE HOPE YET! EcoPure by Bio-Tec has a biodegredation additive that accelerates plastic biodegradation in and out of the landfill.

For the last four years my life has been ruled by plastic film.   I am not a plastic lover but I have come to appreciate the fact that plastic is here to stay in one form or another.  Things around you made of plastic:

  • your carpet

  • the paint on the walls

  • the finish on the floors, if not the floors themselves

  • just about everything in the car

  • the plumbing pipes

  • the casing around the electrical wires

  • your shoes

  • your pillow

  • etc.

Plastic  is such a catch all word for an enormous range of chemicals and products.  The word chemicals scares me, but it shouldn't.  The periodic table of elements is a chart of "chemicals".  Everything is a chemical (except light I guess).  EVERYTHING.  You, me, everything.  What we should be concerned with are man-made toxic chemicals. 

We have a choice on what we create and it's toxic footprint.  But first we need to understand what we are doing:

  • BIODEGRADABLE: Biodegradable plastics are probably one of the worst plastics available. They are plastics capable of being decomposed by bacteria or other living organisms. Plant based plastics do this naturally. Petroleum based plastics need to have an agent added to facilitate this process. BUT, just because it will degrade in natural outdoor conditons, it doesn't mean that they break down in landfills or in the water or that the plastic or agent doesn't leave toxic residue that may be unhealthy to plants and animals behind. Plus, plastics that have a biodegrading agent added to them CANNOT be recycled.

  • COMPOSTABLE: Compostable plastics are capable of decomposing COMPLETELY, without leaving any toxic residue. In order for a plastic to be called compostable, three criteria need to be met:

    1. Biodegrade - break down into carbon dioxide, water, biomass at the same rate as cellulose (paper).

    2. Disintegrate - the material is indistinguishable in the compost, that it is not visible and needs to be screened out

    3. Eco-toxicity - the biodegradation does not produce any toxic material and the compost can support plant growth.

SO, this is the SUPERSTAR of plastics except:  It breaks down at the same rate as PAPER.  You can't use it to make something durable.  It does amaze me though that plastic byproducts handled carefully can create non-toxic soil.  Place sigh of relief here.  It's a start.

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  • BIOPLASTIC: Bioplastics are plastics made from renewable biomass sources, such as vegetable fats and oils, corn starch, straw, woodchips, food waste, etc. or agricultural by-products and ALSO from used plastic bottles and other containers. It's basically plastic made from RENEWABLE resources. It isn't necessarily biodegradable or compostable or recyclable. It could be, but the only criteria is that it is made from renewable resources.

  • PLANT BASED: The same as bioplastic except that if it is part plant and part oil, the oil portion does not need to be from a renewable resource. One thing to keep in mind about renewable plant based plastics is that because it is a crop based plastic, it uses water, soil, land mass, and energy to grow before it is harvested. Then it goes through a very complicated and energy consuming process to be turned into oil that will be turned into plastic beads. PLANT BASED PLASTICS ARE WORSE FOR THE ENVIRONMENT than traditional plastics made of oil because of this. They are not more toxic, they are just harder on mother earth to produce.

  • RECYCLED: The same as bioplastic more or less except often times there is only a percentage of the final product that is recycled. So, recycled can be 100% bioplastic or it could have recycled content. Here is a list of some things made of recycled plastics.

  • RECYCLABLE: This one is tricky. All plastics that aren't biodegradable can be recycled (in China) but the recycler needs to know the exact content of the plastic. The manufacturer of the plastic product would then need to understand which code to stamp on it's product to indicate what it is made of and how it can be recycled. With a bottle that is easy enough, but with plastic film, it's impossible. SO EVEN THOUGH PLASTIC FILM IS RECYCLABLE, THERE IS NO CONSUMER RECYCLING FACILITY IN THE USA THAT CAN RECYCLE IT. You can find places to drop off your plastic bags and plastic packaging, but not shower curtains or painters tarps. It can be recycled at the manufacturers level though. Scraps can be collected and then sold off through SCRAPO.COM or some other service, but once it is out in the world it's out there to stay. Join Recyclebank to get points for recycling.

  • DURABLE AND BIODEGRADABLE: This type of product was made to last a long time but when introduced to normal landfill situations, it will break down and "disappear" in a short amount of time because it had biodegrading agents added to the solution at the time it was made. But we need to remember that what it leaves behind may be toxic. Just because it is biodegradable doesn't mean it is compostable.

  • DURABLE AND NON-BIODEGRADABLE: This type of plastic takes FOREVER to break down in landfill like situations. But, I do believe that landfills can add bio agents to the soil to help break down these types of plastics more quickly. Don't quote me on this though.

There are many more levels of plastic torture I could define - polypropylene vs polyethylene vs polyvinylchloride but I'm going to stop here.  Plastic is a complex subject.

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After years of research it is still unclear which film will do the most good for the consumer and the least harm to the environment.  There has not been one plastic film provider who could answer this question either.  I often wonder why I am even doing this? Because it's going to be done by someone eventually.  Ignoring the problem and letting someone else deal with the solution isn't a good answer. It's better that a company that is concerned about plastics and concerned for the health of the earth and it's inhabitants be in charge of working through the solution to this challenge, so we will do our best.  Just say no to PVC.  PVC is made with phthalates (plasticizers).

If you are still with me, it's time to relax and take a nice little bath.  Maybe with some magnesium salts and frankincense oil?  Sorry if you are toooo big for your tub.  That's one thing a TUBSKY™ can't fix.