To start dealing with Australia’s mounting plastic disaster, the federal government began its first National Plastics Plan last week.
The plan will encounter plastic on several fronts, such as banning plastic on shores, stopping polystyrene packaging for takeaway packaging cups, and phasing microplastic filters in washing machines. But we’re especially pleased to see a primary form of biodegradable plastic will also be phased out.
Biodegradable plastic ensures a plastic that splits down into natural components when it’s no prolonged required for its original purpose. The idea of a plastic that dissolves once in the ocean, littered on land or in a landfill, is compelling — but also (at this stage) a pipe dream.
Why ‘biodegradable’ ain’t that great?
“Biodegradable” implies a thing is made from plant-based materials. But this isn’t continuously the case.
A significant problem with “biodegradable” plastic is the lack of laws or standards. This means it could, and is, being done to apply to all manner of things, many of which aren’t renowned for the environment.
Various plastics labeled biodegradable are conventional fossil-fuel plastics that are degradable (as all plastic is) or even “oxo-degradable” — where chemical additives perform the fossil-fuel plastic fragment into microplastics.
The components are regularly so small they’re invisible to the naked eye but still exist in our landfills, ocean, and earth’s surface.
The National Plastics Plan intends to work with manufacturers to phase out this problematic “fragmentable” plastic by July 2022.
Generally, biodegradable plastics are produced from plant-based materials. But it’s often unknown what type of conditions it can break down in and how long it will take.
Those things may end up surviving for decades, if not centenaries, in landfills, litter, or the sea, as many plant-based plastics don’t break down any more expeditious than conventional plastics. It is because not all plant-based plastics are significantly compostable, like the way some plant-based polymers form can make them amazingly durable.
So it’s best to withdraw all plastic identified as biodegradable. Even after the ban reduces fragmentation — the most serious of these — there’s still no evidence enduring types of biodegradable plastics are better for the environment.
Compostable plastics aren’t much better
Compostable plastic is a different label you may have come across that’s meant to be more suitable for the environment. It’s uniquely formed to break down into natural, non-toxic elements in certain conditions.
Unlike biodegradable plastics, there are regulations and standards for compostable plastics, so it’s necessary to review one of the following labels. If an item doesn’t have a certification label, there’s nothing to say it isn’t some form of mislabelled “biodegradable” plastic.
But most maximum certified compostable plastics are only for industrial composts, which reach incredibly high temperatures. This suggests they’re unlikely to break down adequately in home composts.
Even those declared as “home compostable” are evaluated under perfect lab conditions, which aren’t easily accomplished in the backyard.
And while certified compostable plastics are growing, the number of industrial composting facilities that allow them isn’t yet keeping up.
Nor are collecting systems to get your plastics to those facilities. The considerable majority of curbside organics recycling bins don’t currently take compostable plastics and another packaging. It means placing compostable plastics in these bins is considered contamination.
Even if it can get certified compostable plastics to an appropriate facility, composting plastics reduces their economic value as they cannot be used in packaging and products. Instead, they’re only valuable for returning nutrients to the soil and potentially capturing a fraction of the energy used to produce them.
Finally, if you don’t have a suitable collection system and your compostable plastic ends up in a landfill, that might be more dangerous than traditional plastic. Compostable plastics can release methane gas — a much more dominant greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide — in a landfill, in the same way, food waste concludes.
It would help if you only considered compostable plastics when you have a facility that will take them and a way to get them there.
Is recycling helpful?
In Australia, systems for converting the most basic types of plastic packaging are well organized and, in many cases, operate appropriately. However, there are still vital issues.
For example, various plastic items can’t be recycled in our curbside bins (including rigid and flexible plastics such as bags and cling films, bottle caps, cutlery, and straws). Placing these things in your curbside recycling bin can pollute other recycling and even damage distributing machines.
The remainder ends up in a stream called “mixed plastics,” much of which has traditionally been exported overseas for recycling due to low sales here. The new waste export ban may help make this in the future.