Biodegradable Plastic 101
We are facing a plastic epidemic.
18 billion pounds of plastic waste flows into the ocean every year. 40% of all plastic is used for packaging, used one time and then discarded. The packaging industry alone produces 161 million tons of plastic per year, building and construction produce 72 million tons and the textile industry produces 65 million tons.
Consumers in Denmark use approximately four plastic bags per year, but in the United States consumers use an average of one plastic bag per day.
Less than a fifth of plastic is recycled. In the United States, approximately 9% of plastic trash is recycled.
A new report released by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation found that retailers have committed to increasing recycled content in their packaging by 25% by 2025, a great stepping stone to fully recycled and recyclable packaging.
Biodegradable plastic could be the answer to our plastic crisis. But it is really as good as it sounds? Biodegradable plastic is fairly new on the market, with many companies working hard to create alternatives to plastic widely used today.
What is biodegradable plastic?
Biodegradable plastic is exactly what you think it is. It’s a plastic-like alternative that acts like plastic in terms of durability and use, but will eventually biodegrade, unlike traditional plastic.
What is it used for?
Biodegradable plastic can be used for anything that traditional plastic is currently used for. Biodegradable plastic can currently be found in clothing packaging, food packaging, retail products and single use items like cups, cutlery and straws.
Leaders in the Industry
Many companies across the globe are currently testing and developing alternatives to traditional plastic. The five companies and leaders below are just a snapshot of the creative innovation going on inside the industry today.
UrthPact is one company leading the way for biodegradable plastic packaging solutions. They specialize in “eco-friendly plastic single use products”, such as coffee packaging, bottles, cutlery and straws. UrthPact states its products can return to organic matter in as little as three months. The company is also a proud member of the US Composting Council. UrthPact makes the first 100% compostable water bottle, cap included. The bottle is compostable in an industrial facility, not for backyard composting.
While Symphony Environmental doesn’t manufacture biodegradable plastic, they specialize in an additive for plastic to make ordinary plastic biodegradable. Their technology can be found in 100 countries and in fields such as retail, medical and manufacturing. Their additive is known as d2w, which is designed to shorten the lifespan of plastic material. The technology can be added at the extrusion or casting stage of plastic. The additive makes plastic products “biodegradable”, if they are thrown out as litter and make their way into the ocean, their natural oxidation process will be sped up by the additive until the material becomes bio-assimilated and used as a food source by bacteria and fungi. Plastic with the additive can also be recycled alongside traditional plastic. Symphony Environmental has an interesting take on our plastic crisis. Since their technology is applied during the extrusion or casting stages, it can be applied to new or recycled plastic.
Sandra Pascoe – Cactus Juice Plastic
Sandra Pascoe, a researcher at the University of the Valley of Atemajac (Univa), has developed a biodegradable bioplastic made from nopal cactus. The material takes approximately a month to biodegrade in soil and only a few days when left in water. It’s non-toxic and edible by both humans and animals, although it may not taste great. If the cactus plastic were to reach the ocean like many traditional plastics, it would most likely become food for sealife.
The manufacturing process is simple. She first cuts the leaves of the cactus, peels them, juices them, and then refrigerates it for a short period of time. She then adds a non-toxic formula to the juice, laminates it and lets it dry. The process currently takes about 10 days in Sandra’s lab, but she believes it can be a lot quicker when brought to the industrial level.
There are over 300 species of nopal cactus and Sandra is still researching which species are the best to use for her work. Cactus Juice Plastic has a long way to go but has a promising future.
Humble Bee – Hylaeus
A bee species known as the humble bee creates a material to make their nests waterproof and protect their larvae. This material, a biopolymer, has resistance to heat and naked flame, resistance to acids and bases as well as solvents. The Humble Bee company, researching the humble bee’s material, has found that it is a strong rival to traditional plastics.
Based in New Zealand, the company has its work cut out for them, but may be able to make a break in the industry. How do you feel about making a plastic alternative from bees?
Biofase specializes in biodegradable plastic made from avocado seeds. The company currently manufactures cutlery and straws. Their bioplastic material contains 60% of avocado pits biopolymers. They chose avocado seeds because they were once considered agroindustrial waste, discarded and not needed, and Biofase wanted to use organic, sustainable material in their products. The Biofase plastic alternative is biodegradable in soil or in a landfill and will completely degrade and dissolve in approximately 240 days.
Testing and Standards
Every company and region test their plastic differently. Testing is done in environments that mimic home composting settings, industrial composting facilities, water, landfills and other possible settings that the material may end up in.
Regionally, there are specific standards companies must meet to market and sell their biodegradable plastics. In the state of California, plastics marketed as compostable or biodegradable must be accompanied by “competent and reliable evidence” and meet specific standards to prevent misinformation about the item’s environmental impact. Public Resources Code (PRC) Sections 42355-42358.5. was established in California in 2011 to further the standard of biodegradable plastics in the state. The code states that consumers must not be provided with a false believe that the plastic products are less harmful to the environment when littered. When a product is labeled as biodegradable or decomposable, the manufacturer must provide the conditions and timeframe in which the product will break down.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Pesticide Programs also has a standard for any products marketed as biodegradable in the US. The standard is currently running under the Label Statements Pilot Program and may be changed or updated in the near future. The standard breaks down requirements for products who claim that all ingredients are biodegradable and for products where only some ingredients are biodegradable. Registered products must disclose their formula information to the EPA and meet other criteria as well has not contain any known carcinogen, mutagen or reproductive toxicant recognized by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), National Toxicology Program (NTP), International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and the European Union (EU).
As the biodegradable plastic market rises, the price will drop. Until these types of materials are widely available, the price remains higher than traditional plastics. Currently, plastic alternatives can be anywhere from 20-50% higher than conventional plastic costs.
Everything we manufacture has some environmental impact, but the main objective of plastic alternatives to reduce the impact as much as possible. However, just because a product is biodegradable, this does not always make it safe for the environment.
Bioplastics are traditionally made from corn or avocado seeds like Biofase. These plants need to be grown somewhere, and consumers must first ask important questions such as where the plants are grown, how much land they take up and how much water is needed to grow them from start to finish.
Consumers must also ask what happens to the plastic alternatives when disposed. Some plastic alternatives are home compostable, but many are only compostable in an industrial facility. If only compostable in an industrial facility, the material may most likely act the same as traditional plastic in water, and simply break into microplastics.
Unfortunately, many bioplastics that are only compostable in an industrial facility never make it there, instead, ending up in a landfill. When bioplastic breaks down in a landfill, it may release methane, a gas 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide (phys.org). Research is still being done on the full impact of multiple types of plastic alternatives. Until we know more, it’s important to stay informed as a consumer and not fall victim to greenwashing.
Gallant International provides customers with a plastic free packaging solution. We specialize in organic cotton, Fair Trade muslin bags that biodegrade in 6 months if no longer needed.
How do you feel about plastic alternatives? Tell us your thoughts below!
Written by Rachel Alfred
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