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