4th March 2023
As companies strive to develop biodegradable plastic packaging that promises to be better for the environment than traditional plastics, experts warn of potential environmental risks and wasteful consumption.
Bacardi’s biodegradable spirits bottles, Skittles compostable wrappers and designer water bottles are just a few examples of such packaging being developed. Some argue that using degradable materials is imperative as long as plastics remain a staple, stressing the importance of reducing plastic use.
However, confusion around what qualifies as biodegradable and the lack of proper disposal facilities could lead to unintended consequences and further environmental harm.
“People tend to believe they’re contributing to the protection of the planet while buying these products, but it’s not at all the case.”
Gaelle Haut, EU affairs coordinator at Surfrider Foundation Europe
While synthetic petrochemical plastics can persist in the environment for hundreds of years, biodegradable plastics typically break down faster. However, Haut said proper disposal is crucial for biodegradable plastics, whether through an industrial or home compost facility.
Unfortunately, many people lack access to these facilities, leading to biodegradable plastics ending up in recycling centers, landfills, or the environment, which can have negative consequences.
Confusion, risks surrounding biodegradable plastics
Supermarkets across the United States, Europe and China are increasingly selling items packaged with “bioplastic,” “biodegradable,” “compostable,” or “sustainable” plastics.
Some companies have even claimed to develop edible plastics. But these claims are often unregulated by governments, and most consumers are unaware of their meaning, leading to confusion.
Several companies have emerged to provide certification services for biodegradability claims in recent years, helping consumers navigate the confusing terminologies associated with sustainable plastics.
One of the leading certifying agencies for biodegradable plastics, TUEV Austria, is paid by companies to assess the biodegradability of materials.
TUEV Austria business manager Philippe Dewolfs explained that “bio-based plastics are not necessarily compostable or biodegradable,” despite being derived from biomass feedstock like corn, potato starch, wood pulp or sugarcane. Furthermore, some bio-based plastics may also contain fossil fuel-derived materials.
On the other hand, biodegradable plastics but are designed to decompose into CO2, water and biomass — typically through an industrial or home composting facility.
It is worth noting that compostable items may break down in industrial or home composts, but their biodegradation in landfills depends on factors such as moisture, microorganisms and the product’s composition.
The European Commission proposed new regulations on packaging in November, addressing waste management issues and providing clarity around terms used to describe plastics marketed as environmentally friendly.
“They have their place in a sustainable future, but they need to be directed to specific applications where their environmental benefits and value for the circular economy are proven.”
Misunderstandings about sustainable plastics
There is concern that the lack of understanding regarding sustainable plastics could result in more littering and contribute to the global plastic pollution crisis.
Zero Waste France advocacy manager Moira Tourneur told AFP the misconception about less polluting biodegradable plastics might lead to the overconsumption of single-use plastics.
Experts recommend reducing plastic consumption by choosing alternative materials like glass or metal or reusing plastic whenever possible. Meanwhile, activists call for companies and governments to standardize reusable packaging, particularly for items like yogurt and milk, that can be sterilized and returned to shops for reuse.
This could help reduce plastic waste that often breaks down into microparticles, contaminating the environment and food chain, and being ingested by humans and animals. Microplastics have been detected in soil, oceans, rivers, tap water, and even in humans’ blood, breast milk and placentas.
Learn what you can compost – including some rather unusual items – and what to avoid.