naturally in the environment. This happens when microorganisms consume and break down the compounds in the biodegradable plastic, forming a “waste” products that can be utilized more safely by the environment than were in the original plastic.
These biodegradable plastics are typically made of renewable raw materials, such as from corn oil, orange peels, plant starches, and other plant materials. Biodegradable products are typically made into products such as food containers, utensils, leaf collection bags, and water bottles. Conventional plastic is made with chemicals that can be bad for the environment when they break down. Biodegradable plastics are typically made from natural sources like plants that do not contain any of these harmful substances.
Conventional plastics never really go away in the environment. They just eventually break up into microscopically small pieces. The plastic pieces can be very harmful at these small sizes, such as in the ocean, where they are consumed and make their way through the food chain, including into our own bodies when we consume seafood.
If you do decide to purchase products that are made of biodegradable plastic, be sure that you are purchasing a truly biodegradable product, instead of those that just claim to be but aren’t. To ensure that the products are truly biodegradable, look for products with the Biodegradable Products Institute logo, which is earned through a third-party scientifically-based certification process.
At the end of their useful life, biodegradable products should go to a commercial composting facility where they will properly break down. However, not all communities offer such a facility, so be sure to research and find out if your community has one before you purchase such products.
While biodegradable plastics can be useful, they have both advantages and disadvantages.
Advantages of biodegradable plastics
- Make durable products for food storage, transport, buildings, construction
- The majority of biodegradable plastics do not contain the environmentally-harmful chemicals that conventional plastics contain.
- Most are not made with petroleum, like conventional plastics are.
- Most are made with all natural components that can safely return to the environment at the end of their life under the right conditions.
Disadvantages of biodegradable plastics
- Biodegradable plastics typically require a higher cost to produce than conventional plastics.
- Biodegradable plastics do not decompose if they are not properly disposed of. They need the correct conditions of moisture, temperature, and humidity that are similar to a composting environment.
- Biodegradable plastics breaking down in an oxygen-free environment, such as in a landfill, can emist methane, a greenhouse gas that is 23 times more potent than CO2.
- There is some concern that biodegradable plastics might contain certain metals that could be released into the environment when the plastics break down. However, research and evidence is not conclusive on this issue.
- Biodegradable plastics do not solve the litter issue, which is the result of irresponsible behavior. The primary focus of the waste stream should be on waste reduction and recycling.
- Not all biodegradable plastics are made from biomaterials. A few types of biodegradable plastics are still made from oil.