Almost two years ago now, when the anti-plastic revolution hit its peak outcry I started working for a sustainability consultancy in Oxford. This was just after the release of Blue Planet’s final episode which shocked and haunted viewers by depicting albatross feeding their chicks plastic and dolphins at risk of exposing their new-born calves to pollutants through contaminated milk.
In my role, I was responsible for supporting a global client to develop a household recycling programme for two if its key products, one fully aluminium and therefore relatively easy to recycle, the other a mix of materials, predominantly plastic – both of which were receiving challenge from the public and western governments alike. It is during this time that I learnt a fair amount about plastic alternatives and actually, the additional challenges “bio”-plastics cause to an already complicated situation.
You see, bioplastics are not what they seem
Sadly, materials classified as bioplastic aren’t necessarily biodegradable in the way us normal folk would consider, or even made solely from natural products. Most often they are still produced using conventional petroleum but are packed with chemical additives which are supposed to cause the plastic to break down more rapidly when exposed to air and light, or it can be broken down by bacteria or fungi, which could take decades and still leave toxic residue behind.
In addition to this, we are seeing the rise of the term “compostables”, these too are not what they seem and typically require high-temperature industrial processing to break down. They will take a lifetime and more in your trusty back garden compost bin. If you see “100% compostable and 100% biodegradable” on a product, check whether you can home-compost it or if it can go into your food waste bin, if not, then alarm bells should be ringing.
So, where do they then end up if you can’t compost them? Most likely in a landfill, or you may try to add them to your recycling… Surely bioplastics can be recycled with other plastics? Again, no. They actually contaminate the whole recycling process due to the additional materials and chemicals and are very difficult to segregate from genuinely recyclable plastics, jeopardising the entire system.
Even if bioplastics and compostables could be broken down much more easily, there is still the complex knock-on impact of their source. Plant-based bioplastic sources often require intensive farming, be this sugarcane, castor beans, canola, soybeans, corn. These then come with their own environmental risks and impacts. Soya production has become synonymous with deforestation and excessive use of pesticides, pollution and water consumption.
Is your head hurting yet?
Don’t settle for Greenwash
Whilst the global momentum towards sustainability is fantastic, we must not simply settle for quick product replacements and get lost in the ‘greenwash’ that is trying to keep us quiet and content. We must constantly challenge producers, manufacturers and marketers to ensure that what they are telling us is true and honest. We need to put pressure on them to continue to develop new solutions that go beyond just sustainable raw materials and manufacturing techniques. This includes looking at the entire life-cycle of a product and its packaging, plus its social impact too. We need to raise our awareness of the circular economy and force those expectations on the market.