The sceptics at Mother Jones magazine took a look at plastics packaging, recycling and biodegradbility as part of a special report on the environment titled "Waste Not Want Not." The report isn't brand new, but I just noticed it today thanks to a link from the Surfrider Foundation's Rise Above Plastics blog. One part of the special report attracted my interest. It is a sidebar headlined "Do Biodegradable Plastics Really Work?," and it quotes Ramani Narayan, a professor of chemical and biochemical engineering at Michigan State University and a frequently-quoted expert on topics involving degradability and packaging. Mother Jones senior editor Dave Gilson asked Narayan six questions:
- Just how long does it take for conventional plastics to completely break down?
- But broken down plastics are better than litter, right?
- What about biodegradable plastics?
- Can biodegradable plastics break down in landfills?
- How do I avoid fake biodegradable plastics?
- So what's the best way to get rid of biodegradable plastic?
They're pretty neat: Microorganisms can convert biodegradable plastics into water, carbon dioxide, and biomass -- with no nasty chemical leftovers. However, there is a lot of confusion surrounding these ecofriendlier plastics -- some of it intentional. "This word 'biodegradable' has become very attractive to people trying to make quick bucks on it," explains Narayan, who helped develop biodegradable corn-based plastic. Some companies, he says, are making conventional plastic that degrades quickly and then throwing around claims about biodegradability that are unproven or just too good to be true.What's the best way to get rid of biodegradable plastic?
"The public thinks that biodegradability means 'If I throw it away, it will completely go away,'" says Narayan. "They don't even know what 'going away' means." Real biodegradable plastic should be sent to a commercial composting facility, where it will spend its final days being eaten by microbes. But here's the catch: In 2007, only 42 communities nationwide offered compost collection. (Seventeen were in California.) And though some biodegradable plastics can be recycled, no curbside recycling program will take them. So before you buy biodegradable plastics, make sure you can help them "go away" the right way.This makes sense, and many experts in plastics and packaging would agree with Narayan. But it assumes that consumers pay attention to whether a package is recyclable or biodegradable. It assumes that they'll properly dispose of their single-use plastics -- collecting and sorting items based on whether they should ultimately be recycled, composted, or landfilled. But in the real world, where litter and marine debris are big problems, biodegradable plastics are also going to find their way into the waste stream, the recycling stream, and into the environment. Since the "best way" to dispose of them isn't an option for most consumers, what does that mean for the future of biodegradable plastics?