2019 has seen some great beef. Not the bovine kind but the mud-slinging twitter kind. Colleen and Rebeccah hooked us, Brexit has continued to highlight the pickle we are in. Unfortunately we can’t offer much sense to Colleen, but we can put our two-penny worth in on bioplastics. Are they the antidote to our single-use obsession? Or actually making even less sense than plastic.
Even if you aren’t as riveted as us in bioplastics, compostables, biodegradables, PLA, the list goes on for what these new materials are called, you will have come across them. Lots and lots of companies are going “green” and swapping single-use plastic for other alternatives.
Put your mind back to the summer, as you drank a beer from a sustainable plastic cup whilst bopping to Ed Sheeran. You’d heard that bioplastics are plastics made from organic matter. You understood that compostables compost and that biodegradables will, well, degrade. You took the last sip of beer and throw your cup(s) into the bin guilt-free. All makes sense, apart from the Ed bit.
Unfortunately there’s a but. It’s not as simple as many companies have led us to believe. These items don’t magically disappear when put into the bin and return as compost to help our farmers. It’s not quite the circular dream we are being sold.
Lots of these materials are advertised as compostable. But they need compost to do their thing. Some can compost at home, but not many of us have composts. And others need to be industrially composted (i.e in a big machine making the perfect conditions for compost) but there just aren’t enough industrial compost facilities in the UK. And if we put our compostable plastic in the recycling it can contaminate the recyclable stuff. We’ve been recycling plastic since 1972 and we really aren’t very good at it - making it more complicated won’t help.
Biodegradable materials could be of more interest. Picking up your dog poop in a biodegradable bag instead of a plastic bag makes sense as this new bag will degrade much, much quicker. But not all biodegradables do what they say on the tin. There’s issues around how long they take to degrade and also some leave behind a nasty pile of microplastics.
Feeling the pressure to go green many companies are blindly switching one single-use item for another. Taking into consideration none of the unintended consequences. This is naïve at best, green-washing at worst.
However, we do need to remember these materials are innovative. They are made by people who really want to make the world a cleaner place. There are materials out there having a positive impact when used in the right situation, and we think there are many more amazing materials to come that will have a part to play in tackling the plastic scourge. Some items need single-use (dog poop for one) but the economics (making it worthwhile financially for bioplastics to be recycled) and the infrastructure just isn’t in place for a straight swap across the board. Especially when there seems to be little collaboration between producers, governments and polluters.
Importantly though this debate is focussed on the wrong end of the waste hierarchy: prevent, reduce, reuse, recycle, recover, dispose. It is missing the real need to use less and reuse more. And that is where we need more sense. Sign up here to stay in touch with us.
Footnote: To read more on why compostable plastics aren't such a good idea, check out this article by Sifted.