Many plastic packaging products boast environmentally-friendly benefits such as “biodegradable” and “compostable” capabilities. But, what exactly do these terms mean? In order to fully understand the impacts of our packaging materials on the environment, is it crucial to learn about their breakdown processes.
The term ‘Biodegradable’ refers to the ability of materials to break down and return to natural components. In order for plastic products to qualify as biodegradable, they must breakdown quicker than their regular plastic counterparts. How do they do this? Simple. Chemicals are added into the plastics to assist in a quicker breakdown. By quicker, manufacturers mean less time than regular plastics – which can be a single year up to multiple decades depending on how the plastic is discarded.
So are biodegradable plastics better for the environment? Not completely. The ability of this plastic to biodegrade helps to reduce the buildup of waste at landfills which is great. However, there is one major disadvantage. During the breakdown process, biodegradable products will break down into smaller and smaller pieces over time (sometimes microplastics), but never fully disappear.
What to look for? As all labeling requirements differ, plastics that are biodegradable will be referred to as Polylactic Acid (PLA) or bioplastics. The biggest downfall of using biodegradable plastics is there are not many end-of-life options for them other than landfilling. Because of the way PLA plastics breakdown and their chemical additives, most local organics programs are unable to accept them. The same is true for recycling facilities, even when the plastic has a #7 PLA with a recycling symbol.
The term ‘Compostable’ refers to the capability of a product to fully breaking down into a natural soil-like organic matter – providing the earth with beneficial nutrients. While biodegradable materials are designed to break down within landfills, compostable materials require specific conditions in order to breakdown properly.
So are compostable plastics better for the environment? Maybe, but it depends on how you discard of them. Compostable plastics are made from natural materials, like bamboo, flax, or corn. These plastics require UV sunlight rays, oxygen, and high temperatures to properly breakdown. Without these elements, especially when discarded at the landfill, compostable products will give off methane gas; a Greenhouse Gas. Unfortunately, at-home composting systems and most commercial composting systems have similar issues and usually cannot get hot enough to begin breaking them down either.
What to look for? In order for a product to be labeled ‘compostable’, they cannot contain toxins that could leach into the soil. Labeling standards differ around the world. Therefore, even if a plastic is labelled compostable, you should always double-check it will 100% break down in your style of composting system or local program. Still unsure? Have a local ‘Compost Coach’ help you out.