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Does biodegradable plastic really exist?

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On the surface, biodegradable plastic is a miracle. It looks like plastic and works like plastic. Once thrown away it will return to nature.

But here’s the big problem: Just because your plastic fork, cup, or dog poop bag is advertised as biodegradable, doesn’t necessarily mean it will break down in the environment. The same goes for so-called compostable plastics. Here’s why.

Many biodegradable plastics do break down, but only under certain conditions. One of the most common compounds is a polyester known as PLA (short for polylactic acid), which biodegrades in industrial composting environments.

But industrial composting isn’t done in most places in the United States. This means that abandoned PLA is likely to end up in landfills, rivers or oceans. It may even be burned, releasing planet-warming gases and toxic chemicals into the environment.

Additionally, most curbside recycling programs cannot recycle biodegradable plastics, including PLA. If people throw them into recycling bins, they could contaminate the plastic that actually belongs there. This creates sorting challenges for recyclers.

(As for dog poop bags, keep in mind that many commercial composters don’t accept pet waste. That’s one reason the FTC warns against “biodegradable” claims made by dog ​​poop bag manufacturers may be deceptive.)

“It’s complicated because biodegradability changes depending on where you are and what happens to your plastic,” said George W. Huber, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Committed to plastic waste solutions. “Some companies make claims about biodegradable plastics, but these claims are not substantiated.”

He said this misinformation doesn’t just mean that well-intentioned people may pay more for things that don’t help the environment as much as they think they do.More can be created If people were led to believe they could buy as much biodegradable plastic as possible with little impact on the planet, consumption and waste would be reduced.

Perhaps worse, it can also make people feel like they can dump their trash anywhere because they think biodegradable plastic will return to nature on its own. (Again, no. So please don’t litter!)

The crux of the matter, of course, is that the world is being drowned in plastic.

According to the United Nations Environment Program, global production 430 million tons of plastic in a year, more than The total weight of all mankind. The United Nations Environment Program estimates that only 9% of plastic waste is recycled. Ordinary plastics made from fossil fuels take centuries to degrade.

Biodegradable plastics are a promising solution, and scientists around the world are researching new plastic types. For example, Dr. Huber’s team in Wisconsin has been developing a new plastic made from corn cobs that biodegrades easily and has the potential to replace polyethylene, which is widely used in packaging. But reducing production costs remains a challenge.

Ruihong Zhang, a professor of biological and agricultural engineering at the University of California, Davis, believes that the world will soon have access to biodegradable plastics. She is working on a new type of plastic made from cheese waste by-products More readily biodegradable in the environment.

Not only will this reduce the amount of plastic waste going into landfills. Making plastic from food waste also reduces emissions that contribute to planet warming. “We’re basically trying to solve the waste problem and reduce emissions at the same time,” Dr. Zhang said.

So what can you do to navigate the tricky world of biodegradable plastics if you want to reduce your impact on the environment?

First, you can familiarize yourself with the main types of biodegradable plastics. Before buying any plastic that claims to be biodegradable, check what the plastic actually is and what conditions it needs to truly biodegrade.

nova-Institute is an independent research institute in Germany dedicated to plastic solutions. Useful graphics This breaks down some of the main types. It also tells you whether they are proven to biodegrade—in soil, landfill, fresh water, or the ocean—or whether they require more specialized processing, such as industrial composting or anaerobic digesters.

Then, if biodegradable plastic doesn’t meet your needs, it might make sense to use recyclable plastic. (But please remember Recycling has its own challenges.)

Ask yourself: Are there reusable, non-plastic alternatives to what you need, or is it made from a truly biodegradable material like paper?

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