Compostable Plastic: is it a valid solution to fight single-use plastic?
As global warming and environmental challenges gain more space on the news and the topic becomes more and more popular, many industries and market fields are stepping ahead to find solutions for the single-plastic usage problem.
One of these solutions is compostable plastic. Theoretically, these types of plastic can be composted and will disintegrate and incorporate into the earth and natural cycles of decomposition. But do they really?
Unfortunately, recent studies are still debating this topic, and the results are not 100% clear as it may work for some types of packaging and shelf life of certain products, but it doesn’t work as a one-fit-all solution. Generally, the best solution for plastic waste is not to produce any waste to start off. Reducing and reusing will always be the best alternative.
But as we have to face the facts, we know that many people are still adjusting to this concept, and there is still a huge demand for disposable packaging, especially when it comes to food that needs to ensure safety norms and avoid risks of any outside contamination.
So let’s see the key points to pay attention to when discussing compostable plastics.
Is compostable plastic harmful to the environment?
When we see the words “compostable” or “biodegradable,” we tend to assume that the material is good for the environment. But this is not the case with every compostable plastic. It can still be harmful. Also, where it breaks down matters? Decomposing in a industrial compost facility at 1000F isn’t the same as in our local backyard garden. A compost table plastic item could in fact break down into fragments and eventually disappear. But, what happens to the chemicals inside those plastics? Are they then leaching into our soils? More research is needed to understand how these plastics that are lost in nature react in our natural environments (land, sea, freshwater).
As found out by researchers, the materials used to produce these types of plastic can still be toxic and contaminate the soil. That has led many compost facilities to currently reject compostable packaging delivered to their facilities.
Another reason these facilities may also deny compostable packaging is that the compost can not be considered organic, as it will be contaminated with non-organic materials - even if they broke down and integrated into the compost.
Even if the compostable plastic is made out of a natural source, like seaweed or rice, most of the time, chemical products must be added to turn these biobased sources into a plastic-like material.
But some of these facilities do make exceptions for packaging approved by the BPI - the Biodegradable Products Institute. This institution is responsible for researching and certifying which materials are compostable and which are not.
Most compostable and biodegradable plastic has not undergone a profound study of its impact and how they interact with the soil and the microorganisms that live there in the long term.
Industrial Composting X Home composting
One thing that is not clear about most compostable plastic is the omission of an important word: and really they should be called industrially compostable plastic.
There is a huge difference between the process of industrial composting and the home composting we make in our backyards with the help of our worm friends. Items like forks and bowls are more rigid than paper or plastic bags, and they are still hard to biodegrade and turn into compost.
This considerably hinders the fate of compostable plastic, as most people still find it hard to access industrial composting with limited bins to limited pick-ups. It gets confusing for the public to find out which bin they should put their packaging and single-use items, as they are not recyclable nor compostable either. They should then just be put into our trash bins. What a missed opportunity for advancing Technology for improved solutions for plastic waste reduction.
Is Compostable Plastic less harmful to the oceans?
The short and direct answer is: no! As most compostable plastics are made for industrial composting, there are no studies of how these materials will behave when they get to the ocean except for one study soon to be released by The 5 Gyres Institute in May 2023 on the use of bio plastic items made of material PHA.
The decomposition process of organic matter happens differently on land and in water. But if the compostable plastic is not good for the soil, it will likely be bad for the oceans too. Not to mention that marine creatures end up feeding on these materials, mistaking them for algae, insects, or other aquatic beings.
As it is not true for all and every type of compostable plastic, studies have shown that most of the time, it can be more harmful to the environment than regular plastic. That is because it can not be properly recycled and is also inappropriate for composting.
At the same time that we should celebrate and encourage the search for a sustainable way to use our resources and still allow the economy to move on, we should also keep both eyes wide open for green marketing that tries to fool us. Reducing and reusing is still the better solution.