The use of biodegradable plastics for packaging

The use of biodegradable plastics for packaging

Following the ban on several types of single-use plastics, the biodegradable plastics industry has grown in recent years.

However, is this latest trend really the problem-solver it first appeared to be, in terms of tackling the plastics crisis currently at large? Jonathan Oldfield, MD of Riverside Waste Machinery, considers this…

Although in the past 12 months the ‘war on plastic’ has taken a backseat on the news channels – to make way for all-things COVID-19 related – the issue is still very much a real one.

And yes, we have moved on considerably since plastic really started to alter for consumers – most notably when the 5p carrier bag charge was brought into force from October 2015. This amount has since been increased – with some establishments even boosting this to 20p – and the most recent legislation changes came in the form of a ban on supplying plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds, from October 2020.

This is all great to hear, and certainly makes everyone conscious of their use and purchase of plastic items – but there are still blurred lines in what we should be using instead.

To put this into context, if you are standing in a supermarket – or purchasing goods online – and are given the option of buying single-use or biodegradable plastic, those keen to help the planet will typically pick the latter. This is due to the fact that many people assume this type of product is made purely from plants and can be completely broken down.

But that’s not strictly true.

So, what is?

Biodegradable plastics are those that can be decomposed by the action of living organisms – usually microbes – into water, carbon dioxide and biomass, and are typically produced using renewable raw materials, micro-organisms, and petrochemicals (or a combination of all three).

The advantages include:

·        They can be broken down

·        Less energy is needed in their manufacture (resulting in the production of fewer greenhouse gases)

·        They can be mixed with ‘traditional’ plastics, meaning an entirely new product does not need to be manufactured to produce them.

However, there are issues to be aware of too.

The extra chemicals often contained do cause this type of plastic to break down more rapidly when exposed to air and light. However, some biodegradable plastics fragment rather than biodegrade, meaning they break into small pieces – which can pollute soils, increase the chances of animals ingesting them, and end up in our oceans.

In addition, many of these plastics aren’t suitable for recycling – or composting. And they don’t readily decompose either – the process can take years. Add to this the fact that during their decomposition in landfills, a methane gas can be produced which contributes to global warming, they aren’t the solution everyone is looking for.

The fact remains that the best way to continue to tackle the plastic issue is to reduce the use, wherever possible, in line with The Waste Hierarchy. Plastic isn’t going anywhere fast, but with the ongoing efforts of the population – and continuing new legislation – we are heading down the right track.

And until the day that a plastic is produced that can be easily broken down, with reduced negative effects, that is all we can truly do.