Biodegradable Plastics: Are they Truly Better for the Environment?

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Biodegradable Plastics: Are they Truly Better for the Environment?

Manufacturing plastics are closely tied to the petroleum industry since most plastics are derived from petroleum / Photo by Leyla Ismet via 123RF


Humans now live in a society that's highly dependent on plastics. We have been convinced that it can make our lives easier as this material can be efficient to use. However, reports from the last decades showed how plastics had drastically affected our planet and everything that lives on it. Since the rapid growth of global plastic production in the 1950s, the annual production of plastics has increased almost 200-fold to 381 million tons in 2015. This figure is nearly equivalent to the mass of two-thirds of the world population. 

According to an article by the National Geographic, Great Britain's Royal Statistical Society reported in December 2018 that only 9% of all plastic had been recycled for that year. Aside from that, about 18 billion pounds of plastic waste is being dumped into the oceans from coastal regions every year. This and many more human activities worsen the global plastic pollution crisis, which heavily put our environment and wildlife in grave danger. It has also been reported that high-income countries generate more plastic waste per person. 

With the number of plastics being generated every year, it is important that humans learn to dispose of their trash properly. If uncontrolled and poor management of solid waste continues, about 12 billion metric tons of plastic will enter landfills or the environment by 2050. Thus, many researchers have been developing or discovering effective means to mitigate the effects of plastic pollution in our environment, and this includes making biodegradable plastics. 

However, the question remains: are biodegradable plastics good for the environment? Or will it only worsen climate change?

Regular Plastic vs. Biodegradable Plastic

Manufacturing plastics are closely tied to the petroleum industry since most plastics are derived from petroleum. This means they contribute to the damage caused by oil extraction operations. In fact, the United States Energy Information Administration reported that there's an estimate of 331 million barrels of petroleum used in 2006 to manufacture plastics. Aside from the danger of petroleum, plastics also came from fossil fuel, which is a source of dangerous toxins. 

When burned, plastics release toxic chemicals, such as hydrochloric acid, benzene, and dioxins. Aside from that, there are additives in plastics like phthalates and bisphenol A (BPA) that are dangerous to human health and can leach from containers into food or water.

Biodegradable plastics, on the other hand, are plastics that decompose naturally in the environment. This happens when microorganisms in the environment metabolize and break down to create a structure of biodegradable plastic. Thus, this has been recognized as less harmful to our planet than regular plastics. According to an article by Explain That Stuff, biodegradable plastics decay faster in the presence of light and oxygen. 

With the number of plastics being generated every year, it is important that humans learn to dispose of their trash properly / Photo by Ирина Кролевец via 123RF


However, a recent study conducted by the researchers from the University of Plymouth found out that biodegradable plastic bags can still remain functional after being exposed for three years in the environment. According to an article by the Science Daily, the researchers have examined the degradation of five plastic bag materials, which are widely available in the United Kingdom. These plastics were then left exposed to air, soil, and sea. 

The biodegradable plastic bags are then monitored on a regular basis. Their deterioration was determined in their already being less visible in surface area. After that, the researchers discovered that all the materials have been completely disintegrated into fragments after nine months. However, there have been some materials that remain functional as carrier bags, such as the biodegradable, oxo-biodegradable, and conventional plastics. This is after being in the environment, soil or oceans, for more than three years. 

The findings also showed that although the bags have completely disappeared after three months, they will remain in the soil for 27 months. In an interview, lead author Imogen Napper said, "After three years, I was really amazed that any of the bags could still hold a load of shopping. For a biodegradable bag to be able to do that was the most surprising. When you see something labeled in that way, I think you automatically assume it will degrade more quickly than conventional bags. But, after three years at least, our research shows that might not be the case."


Are Biodegradable Plastics Good for the Environment?

Previous studies have shown that biodegradable plastics disappear in our environment for a shorter period of time compared to traditional plastics. According to an article by the Total Papers, the United Nations report stated that biodegradable plastics can take up to five years to break down. This sounds very ideal since regular plastics can still be in our environment for 450 years. However, five years of biodegradable plastics in the ocean can still be consumed by marine animals. 

Biodegradable plastics, just like regular plastics, create a perpetually destructive cycle. These materials can still heavily affect our environment, worsening climate change. In an interview with the Environmental Leader, Richard McKinlay, head of circular economy at resource recovery specialist Axion, stated that biodegradable plastics as a better alternative is a complicated issue. "People hear terms such as ‘biodegradable’, ‘bio-plastic’ and ‘compostable’ and assume that these plastics are more ‘environmentally friendly. However, the reality is not so simple," he said.




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