Is it Really Biodegradable? A “Break Down”

I often hear people say, “…but it’s biodegradable”. A term that seems harmless, almost guilt free in a sense. An eco alternative to plastic produced from petroleum. Isn’t that the overall issue with plastic, its permanence? Something that will readily breakdown seems like the perfect solution. In fact, it has become a new(ish) trend in packaging and single use items. I am noticing more and more take out items and even Amazon packaging labeled as biodegradable. This trend seems eerily similar to the old allure of “recyclable”, but may be even more misleading.

The thought of your fork or cup breaking down in the soil seems much more tempting than the offensive plastic spoon that will sit and rot for years in a landfill somewhere. Yes, the thought sounds greener and seems to lessen the all-to-real “eco-guilt”. I feel it every time I throw something away. In reality however, it’s a farce. A marketing ploy. A commercial tactic that predominantly leads to the same fate: oceans & landfills.

Let’s “Breakdown” the Common Misconceptions:

Compostable and Biodegradable are the same thing.

They are similar, both are items that “will break down into carbon dioxide, water and biomass within a reasonable amount of time in the natural environment”. Compostable items have the added benefit of releasing valuable nutrients into the soil as they breakdown (source: Eco Products).

Aren’t all products eventually biodegradable?

When in a proper composting facility or natural environment, we can expect things to decompose at their scientifically estimated rates. I see images, like the one below all the time. But the misleading piece is that when these items are in landfill they may never decompose. Landfills aren’t designed to breakdown organic material, in fact they are designed to do the opposite. They are intended to be air tight and control decomposition as a means to reduce methane emissions from uncontrolled biodegradation (source: Eco Products). This also means that the inorganic material like tin cans aren’t decomposing in the landfill either.

Image by Colleen Tighe © The Balance 2019

Organic matter decomposes quickly!

Most biodegradable items don’t actually break down in landfill. Items break down much more quickly aerobically (with the help of oxygen) and landfills are tightly packed, heavily slowing this process. Something that can biodegrade will only do so in the right conditions (source: Eco Products) So the compostable cup or paper straw, when thrown in the trash, miss their intended outcome.

“The dry and oxygen-poor conditions found in modern landfills cause organic matter to mummify rather than decompose. The result is very little biodegradation in a landfill.”

Eco Products

Biodegradable Plastic is a great alternative

Bioplastics are a special type of plastic. They can be one of three things: made from renewable sources like corn, biodegradable under the right conditions, or a combination of the two. Many of these products are labeled as a “bioplastic” or “biobased” when their chemical makeup is identical to fossil fuel based plastic, or even produced from fossil fuels, but are technically biodegradable (source CBC). The issue then circles back to proper conditions to breakdown, which are not found in the landfill. Many companies are using these “greenwashing” labels to make their packaging sounds more environmentally friendly than they are either in production or in their disposal.

Don’t sorting bins fix the problem?

Many places have separate bins for compostable material, recyclables, organic matter, etc. These systems sound innovative, practical and like a great alternative to just throwing everything in the black garbage bag. Unfortunately, there are large flaws with these systems

The most obvious being, not everyone uses them correctly. What is and isn’t accepted for recycling is becoming more and more restricted, it also varies from place to place. This makes it difficult to properly sort “trash” from “recyclables”. For more tips on how to recycle properly, check here. National Geographic also does a fantastic job of explaining plastics and recycling. As you can imagine, biodegradable items add to this mess of waste sorting. Much of what could be composted doesn’t actually make it to a composting center. To make matters more complicated, Live Science also points out that not all commercial composting sites accept compostable dish ware.

“60 million tons of biodegradable materials (food scraps, wet & soiled paper, leaves and grass) are still being sent to landfills where they will sit in an airless, dry environment to be mummified”

Eco Products

Even if we were to live in a perfect system where all compostable items made it to their designated composting site, and the site were to accept them, we are overlooking the fact that a large amount of resources went into making these items for one meal’s use. The bigger problem I believe, is the mainstream acceptance of single use items and how readily we throw things away. The compostable and biodegradable wave only adds to this culture. 

Items that are labeled “bio” aren’t always such, and even if they truly are, they won’t breakdown unless in the correct environment. This sounds discouraging, I know. Wouldn’t it be nice if we had solved the plastic problem with compostable alternatives? This is the perfect example of the price of convenience, as a society we are going to have to give up certain conveniences in exchange for a sustainable future. Luckily, it’s not that crazy and it’s not that hard!

So What Can We Do?

Avoid and refuse single use items

Regardless of their “guilt-free” label (recyclable, compostable, biodegradable, made from recycled plastic, etc). They are all resource intensive to produce and most end up in the landfill.

Carry a reusable kit with you

The less single use items you use the less there are to throw away. Check out our blog on creating your own kit.

Cook at Home

This seems simple, but it’s true. Food made at home generates less waste in general and avoids single use items all together.

Compost

Start your own compost at home. It’s a great way to reduce household food waste and you can add these compostable single use items in if you do find yourself with the odd biodegradable fork or paper straw. For tips on composting at home, check here.

Sort your waste

Get informed and sort your waste properly. This varies from place to place. Certain cities have composting centers and pick up biodegradable material. Find out exactly what types and ensure they end up in the right bin. Recycling varies everywhere, learn what is and isn’t accepted, then sort accordingly.

“Only powered by knowledge can we take the necessary actions to transform our relationship with plastic and protect our families, communities & the environment.”

National Geographic
Ask local restaurants to provide reusables as the norm

So many dine-in places still use single use items for utensils, plates, cups, etc. (Starbucks- looking hard at you!). The more pressure consumers put on business, the more likely they are to meet the demand.

Bring your Own Take-out Container

This one can be daunting, and some places won’t allow it. But you’d be surprised how often you just might get a yes! When picking up takeout, or taking food home from a restaurant you can ask to take it in your own container. This saves the plastic single use or dare I say styrofoam container from the impending trip to the landfill.

Dine in

If you know of a restaurant that uses reusables when dining in, eat there! We have found some hidden local gems and even chains that don’t provide disposables when eating in. So we intentionally will choose to eat there over somewhere that doesn’t offer reusable plates, cutlery, cups, etc.

(Bali has a single use ban, there weren’t any forms of take out cups, plates, cutlery available. If you didn’t have time to sit and enjoy, you had to bring your own)

Get involved in local bans & pledges.

Single use bans can have a drastic impact. If the convenience isn’t readily available it forces everyone to make the greener choice. The amount of times I’ve asked for “no straw” and they’ve still put one in the bag with disposable napkins and single use condiments I didn’t ask for is all too frequent. Find out how to join a committee or petition in your area for a single use ban, or start your own. Change.org is a great place to start.

(Article Feature Photo by Brian Yurasits on Unsplash)

What are your tips on reducing single use waste? We would love to hear from you!

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