Does Eco-Friendly Plastic Biodegrade? The Ugly Truth About Biodegradable Plastic

Single use bottle not biodegradable plastics
Switching our single-use plastics to single-use biodegradable plastics might help to solve the plastics crisis.

Plastic. It seems to be everywhere in our world. In fact, a recent study by The University of Newcastle, Australia, suggests that every week “up to 5 g/week of microplastic particles is potentially ingested by humans.”. That’s the same weight as a 20 pence piece in the UK or an American Nickle.

Biodegradable plastics or bioplastics might be the answer to this problem, but both biodegradable plastics and eco-plastics come with their own problem, namely, whether or not they biodegrade at a useful rate.

All things biodegrade, and biodegradable plastic does biodegrade, but in some cases, it may take hundreds if not thousands of years to biodegrade, and that is the problem. 

During this biodegradation process, all plastics (eco-friendly or otherwise) will break down into smaller and smaller pieces, becoming microplastics. Some plastics will also release harmful chemicals and gasses (like methane) during this process.

So, if all plastics biodegrade, how do we decide what type of plastic is “eco-friendly” and why are some plastics marketed as biodegradable or bioplastics? Read on to find out.

What Does It Mean For Something To Biodegrade?

First, we must understand what “biodegradation” actually means in the context of this article. 

Biodegradation simply means that something is broken down by digestive enzymes, or microbes, over a period of time, until it is no longer recognisable as solid plastic.

This process can take anywhere from a few months to hundreds of years in some cases. 

For example, polyethelene (PE) and polypropylene (PP) are two common types of plastics that easily biodegrade in landfills.

What Does Bioplastic Mean?

“Bioplastic” is a biodegradable plastic that has been made from organic material like cornstarch, sugarcane, or soybean oil. In theory, these materials would all biodegrade much faster than plastic made from naturally occurring long-chain hydrocarbons.

Plastic made from biodegradable sources is considered a “naturally degradable” or “ND” plastic, meaning the plastic can be broken down into smaller and smaller pieces without releasing harmful chemicals.

Unfortunately, since the materials used to make these plastics are man-made and not naturally occurring, they are not actually as ‘biodegradable’ as most ordinary people believe, and this is why some biodegradable plastics have been accused of greenwashing.

Plastic: The Ugly Truth

Plastic is now a part of our lives. We can find plastic in packaging, shoes, glasses, cars, boats and just about anywhere else you can think of. Modern life would be almost non-existent without it.

There’s just one problem: we produce over 380 million tons of plastic every year – that’s over seven hundred sixty (760) billion pounds – of plastic every year and it’s estimated that up to half of it is single-use plastic (think packaging and plastic drink bottles).

Are Bioplastics The Answer?

The truth is: plastic rarely degrades as we would like it to. 

When plastic breaks down, it releases a significant amount of harmful chemicals into the environment. According to The Plastic Pollution Coalition’s website, polyethylene produced from natural oil sources like corn and soy grows into polyethylene microfibers that are about 36 times smaller than those generated from petroleum or petroleum-based products.

bamboo toothbrush
Making a switch to non-plastic versions of everyday items is actually fairly easy for most of us to try.

Biodegradable plastic or bioplastics are specifically marketed as being more eco friendly and are usually made from natural materials such as corn starch, sugar cane stalks and cellulose – can be broken down into smaller and smaller pieces over a period of time.

These organic materials are present in nature, but they are also abundant in landfills. Once biodegraded, these materials can then return to the soil to nourish trees, plants and insects. They are considered ecological plastics because they do not impact the environment by creating litter or pollution as their man-made counterparts do.

Bioplastics and biodegradable plastics are made from natural materials and can be broken down into small pieces by microbes. 

However, this process takes a long time, sometimes taking years (if not decades), to break down the plastic properly. This slow degradation is why some people believe some biodegradable plastics are actually more harmful than regular non-biodegradable plastic products because they create microplastics that are harmful to the environment.

Eco-Friendly Plastic Options

Some companies will tell you that their bioplastic products are 100% biodegradable, and in some cases that may be true, but only if the product biodegrades at an acceptable rate.

True eco-friendly and biodegradable plastic is marketed as being “natural” and being made from agricultural sources like corn, soybeans or wheat. 

Other types of plastics are advertised as being “sustainable” because they can be recycled into other products again and again.

When it comes to alternative options for plastic, there are quite a few eco-friendly options for us to choose from, although many come with their own pros and cons.

AlternativeUsageProsCons
Stainless SteelFor anything that needs a solid and durable option, eg food storage, metal cups, etc.Easy to mould into any shape, very durable, lightweight, easy to cleanMany people don’t like eating out of metal containers, not suitable for single-use packaging.
GlassGreat for food storage such as milk, jams, preserves, etc, a lot of glass can withstand high heatEasy to clean, infinitely recyclable, very inexpensiveGlass can break easily, food stored in broken glass must be thrown away. Many recycling facilities don’t take broken glass
Silicone (food grade)All sorts, especially for silicone reusable straws and silicone baking sheets and moulds.Can be great for baking and cooking in and on flexible, heat resistant in most cases, very durable, and quite cheap.Some silicone has plastic fillers, the flexibility means silicone isn’t usually suitable where rigid plastic needs to be replaced
Can be very expensive to buy. Depending on how they are made, they may not last long.
Beeswax WrapsUse in place of plastic wrap and cling film, cling wrap, and plastic wrap.Easy to make, beeswax is antifungal, can be moulded into shapes to fit awkward food waste and is used in place of foil for wrapping food such as sandwiches.If not made from just cotton and beeswax, the wraps are not fully compostable.
Natural Fibre ClothsUsed instead of plastic bags, or in the place of gift wrap.Usually made from natural options like cotton, hemp, bamboo, wool, etc. There are no microfibers to leech into the environmentSome people can be allergic to wool and many of these fibres can begin to biodegrade if they get wet
BambooBamboo can be used in place of many solid plastic things such as utensils, toothbrushes, and even furniture! Bamboo can even be made into a fabric tooIncredibly versatile and fast-growing, making this an excellent renewable resource.
Very popular for bamboo toothbrushes
Bamboo can’t be grown everywhere and there are some distribution miles to consider
Wheat Straw PlasticMade from the leftover straw from the wheat plant used to make bread productsProducts can be strong, easily moldable for endless options (plates, cups, toothbrushes, mugs, etc), microwavable, home compostableNot all wheat straw plastic is truly eco-friendly, it depends on the manufacturer. Wheat straw isn’t as popular as other alternatives

Should We Give Up All Plastic?

Some believe that if we can be responsible for reducing and eventually phasing out plastic completely, then it will greatly decrease the amount of plastic in our waste streams.

zero waste 2
Giving up plastic isn’t easy, but if we all worked towards a more plastic minimal lifestyle, the planet would thank us.

There is a concern that by using biodegradable plastics where there is a need for non-biodegradable options, such as single-use packaging, we are creating more problems than solving. 

Switching to bio-based plastics which are non-biodegradable and made from agricultural products or modified plants may contribute to deforestation, will lead to a further diminishing of global resources and climate change.

Plastic alternatives, like the ones listed above, are a good option but the switch won’t be a smooth one. 

Ethical consumers must be aware that the switch from non-biodegradable to biodegradable plastics will require careful consideration of what alternatives are available in their area and how easy it will be to switch.

Commonly, the only plastic alternatives available are non-biodegradable products. However, there are many different products that can replace single-use plastics in everyday life with environmentally friendly options for us to choose from.

Saying Goodbye To Pointless Plastic

My personal opinion? Reducing single-use plastic use is the right thing to do, but we should also consider reducing the “pointless plastic” use. 

Does Eco Friendly Plastic Biodegrade The Ugly Truth Pinterest Images 1

Case in point, buying Christmas cards to write that have a cellophane cover on them that needs to be removed before they’re written, what is the point in that plastic exactly? I try to avoid this type of pointless plastic use when possible.

We need to be careful that we don’t lose sight of our goal of reducing unnecessary plastic use. Reducing unnecessary single-use plastic is important, but so is making consumer choices to not have pointless plastic and single-use plastic things in our lives where possible.

Maybe we just need a bit of help rethinking our pointlessly plastic lifestyle?