Bioplastics and Why We Aren't Ready For Them
The War on Plastics may be one of the greatest threats to Mama Honua for the next several generations - at the very least. Virtually every facet of the Earth now has some trace of plastic upon it, and with an issue as large as plastics, it’s normal to feel overwhelmed.
In many cases, it’s difficult to determine what the terminology around plastics means, let alone what happens when we dispose of it. Oftentimes, words or phrases like environmentally friendly, sustainable, biodegradable, compostable lead to more confusion than help - or worse - a false impression to make a product or process seemingly environmentally conscious. This is known as greenwashing. To provide some initial context, let’s break down three distinct ways in which we reduce our product waste to landfill:
- Recyclable: Typically used in references to materials like: hard plastics, metals, glass, paper. The recyclability of a material depends on the ability to reacquire the properties it had in its original state. Recycling can prevent waste of potentially useful materials and reduce the consumption of fresh raw materials.
- Compostable: Typically used in reference to breaking down organic matter like: fruits and veggies, egg shells, coffee grounds, plant matter, etc. This is the process of decomposing organic materials into simpler organic and inorganic compounds. Composting is a process that helps recycle organic materials otherwise regarded as waste products.
- Biodegradable: Typically confused with composting. So, what does biodegradable mean? Bio means life. Degrade means to break down. Able means having the power, ability or skill to do something. Therefore biodegradable means that life has the power, ability, or skill to break something down. Living organisms will eventually break down a material that is biodegradable with the caveat of time. This process could take a day, week, month or year(s).
Note: We may not yet all be acquainted with a few new “R” words that should be added into the waste-reduction mantra taught to children. Did you ever think that reduce, reuse, recycle was in a priority order? Time to add in refuse, repair, re-purpose into our waste-reduction mantra ;)
Focusing on a potential remedy to our ever-accumulating plastic problems is the introduction and the current rise of bioplastics. Bioplastics are plastic materials derived from plant biomass such as sugarcane, potatoes, cassava, to name a few rather than from oil. Just because a product is a bioplastic, does not necessarily mean that it is biodegradable. (Don’t worry it’s confusing for us, too).
*Take a look at this Youtube Video on Why Composting Sites are Banning Compostable Plastics *
Bioplastics can be similar in aesthetic to common plastic products which can lead to even more confusion for all of us. Unfortunately, one of the worst parts is with these lookalike appearances, bioplastics often end up improperly placed in recycling systems. Consequences of improperly recycled items leads to contamination, and may result in entire batches of otherwise recyclable materials being discarded to landfill.
So. How do we break down the uncertainties regarding our plastics problem?
Take the time to research and read the plastic recycling symbols. “To alleviate our collective confusion, in 1988, the Society of the Plastics Industry implemented the Resin Identification Coding (RIC) system—a designated number that manufacturers could stamp on their product (usually molded on the bottom) to indicate what type of plastic it was.” (Deer, 2021) Symbols range from 1-7, yet the numbers have no significant meaning to us. Consider downloading this infographic to help!
Focusing on biodegradable plastic, PLA # 7 indicates a plant-based resin that will degrade under certain conditions. Unfortunately, a landfill isn’t one of them. In truth, few communities recycle any RIC 7 plastics. These bioplastics require processing at a modern, high-rate composting facility, but there just aren’t that many around. Check out a map of industrial composting facilities here.
Knowing all of this, when we were designing our packaging and researching these newly emerging bioplastics - we found we had a decision to make.
Do we promote bioplastics that aren’t quite ready or do we use what is readily available and support local economies while designing packaging and processes that are as eco friendly as possible - doing the best we can with what we have until we have solid evidence that we are actually helping?
We chose the latter, which is why you’ll see our packaging reflecting that.
So, where do we go from here? Feeling like you’re left with more questions about our plastics problem than when you started? That’s normal, and we get it -truly.
We trade a little information for more curiosity, and ideally, action. Perhaps you take a look at what recycling facilities you have in your community. How can you expand these conversations on plastics into your workday with colleagues, with friends and family? How do we read labels of environmentally friendly, sustainable, biodegradable, compostable and question what does that really mean? The process to a plastic free lifestyle won’t happen overnight. Refuse what you don’t need, reuse what you can, repair what you can, repurpose what you can! If you’re reading this you’re already making waves on the journey. We’ll party wave it together.
Maria - Staff Writer
Surf Soap Co Hawaii
Sustainable Packaging Coalition
Biodegradable Products Institute