We have all been there: you have thrown away an item and then it dawns on you that it may never break down. This is especially true when it comes to plastic, which can persist for years if not decades in our environment. So why haven't we made all plastics biodegradable?
Why haven't we made all plastics and paper biodegradable?
Plastics are made from oil, which is a fossil fuel. If you've ever wondered why plastic bags are so cheap to buy, it's because they come from petroleum--the same stuff that fuels our cars and powers our homes. And while many people believe that biodegradable products are better for the environment than traditional plastics, this isn't always true! In order to make something biodegradable, it needs to be broken down into smaller pieces first; otherwise it won't decompose at all (just like how leaving chunks of food in your compost bin won't help them break down).
The way we recycle plastic and paper is not enough, and it's not efficient. We need a different approach to recycling that can help us reduce the amount of waste we produce in the first place.
Plastic recycling doesn't work because plastic is made from oil, which means that every time you recycle a plastic bottle or container, you're actually producing more greenhouse gases than if you'd just thrown it away in the first place (because making new plastic requires so much energy). In addition to this, there are only a few places where your recycled materials can actually be turned into something useful--most often they end up being downcycled into lower-quality products like fleece jackets or carpeting--or worse yet thrown away as landfill trash!
The solution is to use biodegradable plastics and paper. Biodegradable means that it can be broken down by microorganisms in the environment, like compostable materials. Compostable products are made from renewable resources, such as cornstarch or other plant-based fibers, and are able to break down into soil when discarded in a compost pile. Recyclable products can be recycled into new items instead of being thrown away after one use (like aluminum cans).
Plastic bags made out of polylactic acid (PLA) or starch will start to decompose within six months after being discarded in a landfill or tossed into nature where they'll eventually biodegrade over time if left alone--but these types aren't common yet because they're more expensive than traditional petroleum-based plastics like polyethylene terephthalate (PET).
Biodegradable plastics are a better option than regular synthetic ones. They're better for the environment, they're better for the economy and they're even better for consumers and companies alike.
As you have probably noticed, biodegradable plastics aren't widely available yet. In fact, the only place you may have seen them is at your local grocery store in the produce section. There are two main reasons for this:
Biodegradable plastic is made from renewable resources, but it's not as strong as regular plastic. This means that biodegradable plastic won't work well in the cold or rain.
Biodegradable isn't always better! The problem with biodegradable plastics is that they don't actually break down all that quickly in nature--or even under controlled conditions like your kitchen sink or compost bin. Biodegradation is a slow process that happens when bacteria eat organic matter and turn it into carbon dioxide gas and water vapor through a process called aerobic decomposition (this happens whether you want it to or not).
Biodegradable plastic is not compatible with some industrial applications. It's not as strong or durable as regular plastic, so it can't be used in the same way.
Biodegradable paper isn't as strong or durable as regular paper, so it doesn't make sense to use in most cases. The reason for this is that biodegradable materials are often made with additives like corn starch or wood pulp. These additives don't strengthen the paper, but they do make it heavier and bulkier than regular paper. This means that you can't use biodegradable products in all the same ways you would use non-biodegradable ones--you wouldn't want your baguette wrapped in decomposing material!
Biodegradable plastics and papers are not ideal for all uses, but they do have their place.
Paper and plastic are not the only options for packaging. There are lots of different types of biodegradable plastic and paper that can be used in place of traditional materials. Bioplastics are made from renewable resources like cornstarch or sugarcane husks instead of petroleum, while biodegradable papers contain additives that break down when exposed to light or heat (and sometimes both).
The solution is to make biodegradable plastics. These are made from natural materials like corn starch or soybean oil which will break down in a landfill environment. Unfortunately, these types of plastics are not yet widely available on store shelves because they're more expensive than regular plastics. However, there are companies like TerraCycle who are working hard to make them available everywhere so that we can all help reduce plastic pollution in our oceans and waterways while still enjoying the convenience of using plastic products like cups!