What’s Going On Here?
Scientists at the University of Plymouth have found biodegradable plastic bags aren’t as biodegradable as they’re supposed to be. The finding supports curious.earth concerns that ‘biodegradable’ labelling is misleading consumers and validating single use consumption.
What Does This Mean?
Biodegradable plastics can be broken down by living organisms… but as the study shows it may take a rather long time for this to happen. Even “compostable” plastics, require specific conditions to break down.
Compostable and biodegradable bags were left exposed to air, soil and sea, environments which they could potentially encounter if discarded as litter.
Results showed the compostable bag broke down within 3 months in water and 27 months in soil. The “biodegradable” bag remained fully intact after 3 years, maintaining enough strength to hold a bag of shopping.
Shall I Stick To Plastic Bags Then?
Oil-based plastic typically requires less energy to produce than plant-based plastic, as oil, the starting product, is still so abundant. However, breakdown in the natural environment is virtually non-existant. Summary: Energy Low – Waste Impact HighPlant-based bioplastics, tend to be more energy intensive as the starting product needs to be grown (e.g. sugar cane). This leads to competition against agriculture & has been attributed to deforestation. Adding to the worries biodegradable and compostable plastics cannot currently be recycled. Summary: Energy High – Waste Impact Low(er)
Ultimately, the issue of the materials is something of a red herring as all materials have their environmental impact. Ultimately plastic is not the problem: single-use items are.
It can be a bit of a minefield, but remember to keep a sense of perspective with the whole bag issue. You don’t need to buy a NEW cute tote bag. First up use the plastic bags you already have at home.
If you have plastic bags for life or tote bags, don’t keep them under the sink or in the cupboard. Try keeping one in your day bag, strap one to your bike seat, or fold one up and keep it in your coat pocket!
Finally… the scientists at The University of Plymouth have asked we thank the woman who donated the sheets of plastic for their experiments. “Ta Pauline”.