Bioplastics: A load of rubbish?

From balloons to disposable cups and cutlery to take away boxes, bioplastics are appearing as the supposed environmentally-friendly solution to plastic.

They allow you to enjoy the benefits of a disposable lifestyle but without the environmental price-tag. But is it that simple? Here at City to Sea we’ve taken a look at the issue and sorted the facts from the rubbish.

But first of all, what actually are bioplastics? To be called a bioplastic, a product has to be either biodegradable or made from plant-based materials. But being made from a plant doesn’t mean a product will degrade like a plant, and being biodegradable doesn’t mean a product will break down with food waste in the kitchen. In reality, most bioplastics need to be composted at very high temperatures over a period of several weeks in an industrial composter, and not at home in our garden compost as many of us think.

There are a couple of main types of bioplastics that you may have heard of, oxo-degradable and compostable. Oxo-degradable plastics are actually petroleum-based plastics that break down into lots of little pieces, yes that’s right- they turn into micro-plastics deliberately. Thankfully the EU Environment Committee is demanding these are banned by 2020. The second type of bioplastics are called ‘compostable plastics’. These aren’t made from oil, so that is a positive. However, despite the ‘compostable’ labelling they can’t be composted in your back garden but need to be industrially composted at high heat. Which means if your compostable balloon or straw ends up as rubbish in our oceans, rivers or natural environment, it won’t breakdown and will pose the same risks to wildlife as normal plastics.

Finally, there are home compostable bioplastics like cellophane. These can go in your home composter and will take 28-60 days to break down. However, if they go in your food caddy, which is then picked up by your local council, they will be removed as part of the depackaging process which prevents contamination from plastics as they don’t break down quick enough.

But if we process them responsibly are bioplastics OK?


The second big issue is that we don’t currently have significant infrastructure to compost bioplastics in the UK. The industrial composters that can break down compostable plastics are called in-vessel composters and there are currently only around 18 in the UK. These sites only accept waste that’s guaranteed not to be contaminated by oil-based plastics, which means the shipments need to come from closed environments (like festivals) which can guarantee the plastics have been kept separate.  Some café’s are offering take-back schemes to enable this too.

This leaves us consumers in a plastics pickle. Compostable bioplastics look exactly the same as oil-based plastics, so they often end up in the food bin or the recycling bin when actually, the only household bin they can go in is the general waste bin. Yes, that’s right, we’re expected to understand that ‘compostable’ doesn’t mean we can actually compost them. As clear as mud.

 

So, should we say bye-bye to bioplastics?

What all this means, is that while bioplastics might sound good, they are still a single-use material and there are extremely limited options to compost them. Ultimately, due the nature of when we tend to use bioplastics – as takeaway food containers and packaging – they end up in the bin and consequently in landfill.   The other issue is that as they don’t biodegrade outside of certain conditions they can still contribute to marine pollution if they become litter.

If compostable plastics are to become a viable alternative to oil-based plastics, there is a lot of work for the bioplastics and waste industries to do so they can better work together.

There are some positive innovations that should be celebrated and are fit for purpose– for example– in Indonesia they have developed a product using seaweed that dissolves harmlessly in water, which solves some of their issues with small sachets.

Our advice at City to Sea remains that refusing plastic and any single-use is the only solution. So choosing to refill and reuse are the best options. If your local cafe is using bio-plastic packaging, then treat it as you would traditional plastic and take your own reusable alternatives.

Check out our list of bioplastics FAQs to find out everything you need to know.

Livvy Drake is a Sustainability and Behaviour Change consultant. In her spare time, she can be found on her bike escaping to nature

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Government urged not to flood schools with plastic period products months after challenging schools to go plastic free

City to Sea have today written to the Education Secretary Damian Hinds MP, urging him to make sure that all period products purchased by this government will either be plastic-free disposables or reusable products.

The call comes after government confirmed that they would be providing free period products to both Primary and Secondary Schools in England and months after the Government challenged Schools to give up all single-use plastics by 2022.

Most period products contain plastic. Period pads for example (including Lil-lets, Always, Tampax and most supermarkets own-brands) often contain up to 90% plastic – the equivalent of four plastic bags per pad, as well as using single-use plastic for packaging the products.

Commenting, founder of City to Sea, Natalie Fee, said:

“Following the announcement to provide period products in schools we want to ensure this momentous and welcome action isn’t a travesty for the environment by ensuring all schools are provided plastic free products. As such we are seeking confirmation from government that they aren’t planning on flooding schools with single-use plastic period products just months after challenging schools to go plastic-free. There are plenty of alternatives out there that are plastic-free, including many reusable options that can save school girls and the government money whilst having a smaller impact on our planet.

She continued, “Most people don’t realise that every single day in the UK about 2.5 million tampons, 1.4 million pads and 700,000 pantyliners are flushed down the loo and that nearly all of these will contain plastic. The result is blockages in our sewers and used period products washing up on our riverbanks and beaches. I am hoping that Government will agree with us that this is a huge problem and set a real example by making sure all the period products they procure are truly plastic-free.”

Campaigns Coordinator at City to City, Jasmine Tribe added,

“In one move Government has the chance to empower young people, protect our oceans and tackle period poverty. People can save up to 94% over their menstruating lives by switching to reusable period products. I hope to see government rolling out a modern period education program alongside this great initiative as this is absolutely vital to get the most out of the scheme.”

For further information on City to Sea’s Plastic Free Period Campaign please visit https://www.citytosea.org.uk/plasticfreeperiods/

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European Union Flag

European Union To Ban Single-Use Plastics By 2021 

Last week the European Parliament voted overwhelmingly to support earlier proposals from the European Commission to cut plastic waste, targeting, in particular, the single-use plastics that are most commonly found polluting Europe’s beaches and seas.  

The vote by MEPs paves the way for a ban on single-use plastics to come into force by 2021 in all EU member states.  

The Single-Use Plastics Directive, which if adopted in full would come into force in 2021, would see a ban on selected single-use products including: cotton bud sticks, cutlery, plates, straws, stirrers, sticks for balloons, as well as cups, food and beverage containers made of expanded polystyrene and on all products made of oxo-degradable plastic across all 28 member states. 

As an organisation, our focus has always been on preventing marine plastic pollution so we welcomed this Directive as “the biggest shift we have ever seen in eliminating” plastic pollution at source 

As well as banning certain items the Directive would force all Member States to: 

  • Take measures to reduce consumption of food containers and beverage cups made of plastic and specific marking and labelling of certain products. 
  • Extend Producer Responsibility schemes covering the cost to clean-up litter, applied to products such as tobacco filters and fishing gear. 
  • Implement a 90% separate collection target for plastic bottles by 2029 (77% by 2025) and the introduction of design requirements to connect caps to bottles, as well as target to incorporate 25% of recycled plastic in PET bottles as from 2025 and 30% in all plastic bottles as from 2030. 

Responding to the Directive, Natalie Fee, our founder commented.

“This is biggest shift we have ever seen in eliminating plastic at source – the EU has set a precedent we hope the UK and the rest of the world will follow. It’s time for companies to wake up and take action if they want to keep trading and selling inside the biggest market in the world, they need to get serious about stopping plastic pollution. Ultimately, we’d like to see a shift towards organisations looking at reusable alternatives to some of the pointless plastics that are hard to recycle and polluting our oceansThe refill revolution is happening – it’s time to get on board.” 

The European Commission estimates that as well as tackling the most common forms of plastic pollution found on beaches the Directive will:  

    • Avoid the emission of 3.4 million tons of CO2 equivalent; 
    • Avoid environmental damages which would cost the equivalent of €22 billion by 2030;
    • Save consumers a projected €6.5 billion.  

So what’s next for Europe?  

The proposals still need to receive a final adoption at the Council of Ministers before the Member States will be given two years to transpose the legislation into their national law. 

But what about Brexit?  

Regardless of what happens with Brexit, the UK is almost certainly going to be obliged to implement the Directive’s proposals. The UK government has repeatedly claimed that they will match or where economically practicable exceed the Directive’s ambition.  

We’ll be watching closely to make sure this happens and will keep you updated. In the meantime, find out what you can do to reduce single-use plastics here 

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