Is There Really Such a Thing as Sustainable Plastic?

Written by Kajsa IngelssonJuly 16, 2020

At this point, anyone and everyone knows that plastic has become a major environmental concern. They are choking our oceans, killing marine life, and threatening human health.

I know many of us recycle, but unfortunately, only an estimated 15 percent of the plastic we use is recycled.

A big part of the problematics behind plastic is that it can remain intact for up to a thousand years, before finally breaking down into countless, tiny microplastic fragments.

‘Biodegradable’ and ‘compostable’ plastics are heavily marketed as greener alternatives to standard plastic. WOW, a solution where we don’t really have to change our habits at all! Or is it? It is important to be aware that ‘biodegradable plastic’ is a vague term, as it very much depends on the environment to which the material is sent after use.

Turtles often mistake plastic bags for jellyfish.

It is true that biodegradable plastics can disintegrate at a faster rate than other plastics – but only in large industrial composting facilities that intentionally accelerate the biodegradation process, through an environment where the plastic’s exposure to air, water and light is tightly monitored.

In a natural environment, the biodegradable plastic will act just as regular plastic, breaking down into microplastic and polluting all the same.

Furthermore, biodegradable plastics are unlikely to break down at all in modern landfill facilities, which are designed to simply store waste, delaying the biodegradation process.

Plastic waste dumping site at Thilafuhsi, Maldives

A recent analysis of biodegradable shopping bags carried out by British marine biologist Richard Thompson, of Plymouth University, proves this to be right. In 2015, Thompson and a group of graduate students buried a selection of biodegradable plastic bags in the university gardens. When the bags were dug up three years later, they were still mostly intact and could carry up to five pounds of groceries.

Thompson and his team’s findings were published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology. Their research involved measuring the deterioration of five different types of shopping bags that were immersed in water, buried in soil or exposed to outdoor air.

Of the five types of plastic bags that he and his team tested, they concluded that none of themincluding the ‘compostable’ bagsdisintegrated enough over the three-year testing period to give them any significant advantage over conventional plastic bags.

This biodegradable plastic bag has been buried to 3 years and can still carry weight.

So, it’s about time that i’m calling this bluff. I have to admit, I was mighty excited when the “green” plastic bags started to show up on the market. But this new research makes it clear that the term ‘biodegradable plastic’ is just another greenwashing scam. It’s designed to confuse consumers, leading them to believe that the bag will quickly vanish if thrown away.

The scientists warn that if consumers are left with the impression that they are being more responsible by adding biodegradable bags to their recycling bins, that can derail efforts to collect conventional plastic bags to be remanufactured into new bags. Chemical additives in biodegradable plastic can contaminate the mixture, rendering it unusable. Ok WOW, it just gets worse.

Plastic on it’s way to be recycled.

What can we do?

There are companies and organizations attempting to make a difference and create genuinely compostable bags. One example is EnviGreen, an Indian company that makes cheap (and edible!) bags out of a plastic-like substance composed of starch and vegetable oils.

But honestly, I’m saying that we need to stop being so reliant on plastic! The only way (for now) to tackle this problem is to change our habits and routines, excluding plastic and opting for other materials.

But yes I KNOW SHIT’S HARD! Plastic is everywhere, and life gets busy and sometimes you just forget.. So, another great thing to include in your life for the plastic you can’t avoid is offsetting with rePurpose. It’s sort of like carbon offsetting your travels, but instead for plastic. Go check out this feature with them for more information 🙂

I’ll leave you with another perfect tool to get you started on your (almost) plastic free new life; my easy to digest series Plastic Detox!

Let’s come together, change our ways and save our oceans.