Are bio-degradable plastics the answer?

Biodegradable Plastics

Globally, only 8% of the 31 million tons of plastic waste produced each year is recycled. The remaining finds its way into landfills and oceans. Plastic is made from petrochemicals and consists of long polymer chains that are so resistant to breakdown that they can last for thousands of years. To understand the true impact of this on the environment, here’s an interesting video you can watch. Now there are products available in India made of biodegradable plastics, which are designed to break down in less time, and have a smaller environmental footprint.

So, if you absolutely must buy plastic items, please buy those made of bio-degradable plastics. The ideal option however, is to recycle, up-cycle or reuse existing items. Use old newspapers to create garbage bags, and old clothes to make sturdy shopping bags.

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We’ve put together a quick primer on bio-degradable plastics so you know what you’re getting into, and can make the right choice.

There are basically two types of bio-degradable plastics

Bio-plastics, also known as vegetable-based or compostable plastics: Bio-plastics are made from organic, renewable resources such as vegetable oils, soy, grains, or starch from corn or sugarcane. They biodegrade within 180 days, and since they are made of natural materials, their decomposition does not leave any toxic residue. However, the decomposition process itself can be complicated, especially in a country like India. This is because it requires commercial composting facilities and very high temperatures for decomposition to occur. Most Indian cities are ill equipped to handle solid waste, and it is likely that you will find the bio-degradable plastic waste too lying around after a few years.

Thermal-based plastics: Thermal-based biodegradable plastics are made from polymers such as PE (polyethylene), PP (polypropylene), and PS (polystyrene) with an extra additive that causes them to break down when exposed to high temperatures. The two main types of this plastic are: oxo and hydro-biodegradable. While oxo-biodegradable plastics need oxygen to break down, hydro plastics need moisture. Therefore, due to the absence of air, moisture, and sunlight in landfills, biodegradable plastics decompose slowly to produce methane gas and carbon dioxide that add to the problem of global warming.

On the face of it, because they biodegrade, are made of eco-friendly materials, and consume less energy during the production and breakdown process,  bio-degradable plastics are a better option than traditional plastics. 

That unfortunately, is a simplistic answer, and globally there continues to be a debate around the effectiveness of this solution. It also raises other issues related to sustainability such as allocation of land specially for ‘growing plastics.’ In India, the public waste management system across most cities isn’t robust enough yet to support the use of this technology. 

Use bio-degradable plastics only if you must use plastics, and if you know that your locality has a robust composting system in place. At the moment, the best way to contribute to environment conservation would be to cut down on the use of plastics overall.

 

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