The term ‘biodegradable’ suggests that the material is able to break down if left out in the environment. Biodegradable plastic is often seen as a cleaner and safer alternative to regular plastic and other materials commonly used for packaging. However, new research has shown that some biodegradable plastic does not break down after years of being buried underground or left at sea.
Researchers from the University of Plymouth studied a range of biodegradable shopping bags and found that even after three years in the environment, some of the bags were able to hold over two kilograms of groceries. The researchers, Imogen Napper and Richard Thompson, tested compostable, biodegradable, oxo-biodegradable and conventional polythene plastic shopping bags.
This study shows that biodegradable plastic does not yet offer a 100% environmentally-friendly solution to plastic pollution. These plastics often need very specific conditions in order to break down properly. Plastic manufacturers still have a long way to go before biodegradable products are completely safe for the planet.
Varying standards of biodegradable
There are no set standards for the amount of time it should take for biodegradable plastic to break down. Some plastics that claim to be biodegradable may take around 10 years to decompose, others may take as little as one year.
The standards become more strict when a plastic product labels itself as ‘compostable’. These plastic need to adhere to European Standard EN13432 and must completely decompose under industrial compostable conditions (heat, moisture, air and bacteria) in under three months. However, industrial composting machines regulate the temperature to 60°C, which is not possible in a natural environment or at home.
These differing standards, or non-applicability of standards in the home, imply that neither biodegradable nor compostable plastics will break down quickly in a natural environment. These plastics are often not designed to decompose without exacting conditions or specialised treatment.
This means that when discarded as litter, biodegradable and compostable plastics can be just as bad for the environment as regular plastics. There are no international standards for environmentally-friendly plastics. However, many countries do have their own national standards for biodegradable and compostable materials. These sorts of regulations will drive the performance of plastic alternatives in the future.
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