Every day, everywhere, plastic is used.
From food containers, shopping bags, to crucial gadgets in medicine, plastic is now the irreplaceable material around the world. Why? As we all know, plastic is cheap, versatile, and easy to produce. The economic and social relevance of its chemical properties are second to none.
The problem is, plastic wastes are difficult to get rid of. The advantages of plastics lead to its biggest disadvantage – lack of biodegradability.
Biodegradable plastic = Solution?
To solve the plastic waste crisis, scientists have come up with something called biodegradable plastic. The purpose of such invention is to eliminate long-lasting plastic wastes from polluting our environment.
As an environmentalist, I was a big fan. For instance, if all conventional single-use plastic was replaced, it means that we can all be free from guilt of ordering a takeaway coffee.
But that’s not the case.
What is biodegradability?
The definition of biodegradable is “capable of being decomposed by bacteria or other living organisms.” However, most of the marketed “biodegradable” plastic is not biodegradable. In fact, those are as detrimental to the environment as any kind of regular plastic.
Bio-based v.s. Biodegradable plastic
Bio-based plastic such as PLA — which is made by converting sugar from corn, wheat, or sugar cane – is generally considered as a biodegradable plastic. However, Bio-based plastic is not the same. It is a compostable plastic, which requires specific conditions (e.g. high temperature, moisture) to break down. These plastics will not naturally degrade in landfill.
Some research already exposed the false marketing. Some biodegradable plastic bags were found to be intact, just like the conventional ones.
So, is it just a mystery then? Not entirely. There are plastic types that are actually biodegradable in normal landfill, just like we hope it to.
So is there no hope?
Yes, we’ve been deluded by the sound of the sweet label on theses plastics. Supermarkets often take advantage of these bioplastics to increase their corporate image by newly labelling their plastic shopping bags.
But we can’t simply blame everything on the material itself. Recently, I attended a public lecture called “The Future of Plastic” at The University of Melbourne, and the speakers highlighted an important point:
We can’t live without plastic, but each one of us must use them responsibly.
Problems such as microplastics, damage to natural systems aren’t a joke. It is important to be aware.