Our society is chained and bound to plastic. Take a look around you right at this moment. There’s probably a package containing your household cleaning product or a container used to store your food. No matter the product, we can’t seem to escape the use of plastic. And let’s face it, it will be around for a long, long time. Plastic bottles are usually made up of petrochemicals which take about 450 years to naturally break down in the environment. Our households can no longer withstand the magnitude, so the synthetic material has seeped into our oceans and ecosystems. Despite our best efforts, only 9 percent of materials destined for recycling make it while the remainder ends up in landfills. While it’s true that some of those plastics end up being recycled, far more of it does not. In fact, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a floating conglomeration of microplastics, is one of many floating islands in the oceans of our planet.
But alas, we are not powerless. Many nations around the globe are taking measures to cut back on single-use plastic by implementing laws and adopting recycling systems that greatly benefit society as a whole. In 2016, France took a groundbreaking stance when it became the first country in the world to ban the use of plastic dinnerware. Compostable alternatives (some edible) will take its place. Norway adopted an incentive-based recycling system, whereby consumers pay a deposit on every plastic bottle purchased which can later be redeemed when returned to a recycling machine. The UK is said to also be flirting with the idea.
Awareness and alarming statistics have driven even those who are not of the green persuasion to search for alternatives to our addiction to plastic. Usher in biodegradable plastics. A modern take on our conventional plastic use, biodegradable plastics are produced as a way to break down in the environment more quickly. It’s worth mentioning that biodegradable plastic does not necessarily mean it is constructed of bio material. Often, these types of plastics are produced using some amount of oil, much like conventional plastic. The major difference between the two is the breakdown process, for which microorganisms play a role. The environment and erosion are key components in the decomposition process of biodegradable materials and therefore seem a much more attractively green option.
Pros and Cons of Biodegradable Plastic
In the right conditions, biodegradable plastics have a significantly improved decomposition phase. That’s what makes them biodegradable. Unlike their conventional counterparts that take hundreds of years to decompose and breakdown, biodegradable plastics can breakdown within three to six months. The conditions set forth must include adequate temperatures and moisture. Basically, microorganisms do their job well. They break down biodegradable materials into carbon dioxide, water or biomass, sans the leftover chemicals that are usually left behind during the conventional plastic breakdown process.
For all of its good points, biodegradable really only works best when not in landfills. Confusion still abounds among consumers who think the term “biodegradable” means it can break down just about anywhere. This is simply not true. When sent to a landfill, nothing breaks down. Couple that with a lack of oxygen, trash in landfills emit crazy amounts of methane -- even if biodegradable. Today’s true biodegradable materials are usually your cutlery, food containers and some compostable bags. To make a dent in its environmental footprint would mean sending these materials to a compostable site where they are naturally broken down by microbes.
Burning Plastic Is A Big No No
In our quest for sustainability, we often look within our own personal surroundings to understand where change can be made. Burning plastic is not one of them. The incineration of plastic is extremely harmful not only to the environment, but is also toxic to human health. And yet, many in the world do exactly that. Reasons vary, but the practice is common among those who prefer to discard of it on their own rather than haul away or pay recycling and waste collection fees. This is seen more frequently in rural communities where residents must somehow dispose of their waste and burning it is the most viable option. One of the most commonly used chemicals in plastic -- specifically those that package our most sought after household items -- contains vinyl chloride. This chemical, better known as PVC is toxic especially when burned. The National Cancer Institute notes the chemical as a human carcinogen.
What’s the Best Solution?
Plastic, whether sent to landfills or burned, is horrible for the environment. The focus should be on using alternatives to conventional plastic. Biodegradable in its true form is the best solution. Creating awareness through proper recycling programs (ones that actually take biodegradable materials to their final resting place) is certainly a key component. Consumers also have a lot of buying power these days. Reaching out to brands they care about and making a passionate plea for such companies to rethink their green commitment could also make a major dent in curbing our dependence on plastic.