You've probably seen the stories or video about “edible” six-pack rings being used by a brewery in Delray Beach, Fla. They've garnered tons of positive headlines. Imagine sea turtles happily munching away on plastic rings, instead of becoming entangled in them!
But are they really good for the environment? And are they better than six-pack rings that are already on the market?
Those are questions I've been looking into for a few weeks now. Frankly, I have been surprised by how much the mainstream media — and some trade press —has been gushing in their reporting on the product.
I've seen headlines crediting the rings for “saving” marine life, or being “safe” for animals to eat.
A lot of the reporting on the topic has been one-sided, repeating dubious claims and data about plastics and reinforcing negative stereotypes. So I wanted to take a more critical look at the story, and share what I've found with Plastics Blog readers.
First up, let me emphasize that I consider plastics marine debris to be a very serious problem. The plastics industry does too. So please don't confuse questioning the environmental merits of this product with indifference or opposition to fixing this issue. Because it won't be productive if schemes like edible plastics, or giant vacuum cleaners that filter seawater, give the public a false sense that the marine debris issue has been magically solved.
I asked Ramani Narayan, one of the world's top authorities on degradable plastics, for his take on the story. Narayan is a professor of chemical and biochemical engineering at Michigan State University and a frequently quoted expert on topics involving degradability and packaging.
He agreed with my points on news coverage of the edible plastic product.
“Unfortunately, in today's instant news cycle and e-communication, scientific rationale and fact checking is sacrificed and lost to carrying sensational and questionable news stories — the more bizarre and sensational the news is, the more appealing it seems to be to print it — ‘tabloid science news,'” Narayan said.
I contacted him because my first reaction to the “edible” six-pack ring story was skepticism. How are the rings actually different, or better, than the products already on the market, that contain a photodegradable additive?
So what's in the edible plastics? The stories say they're made from the husks and grist of brewers' barley. Narayan said he needs more information.
"Fermentation residues of biomass feedstocks are mainly composed of lignin and ash and to a lesser extent cellulose,” he said. “I would expect that the wheat and barley fermentation residues to be composed of the same.”
In general, Narayan said, these residues have a high content of silicon and other inorganic elements like potassium, phosphorus, calcium and chlorine.
“The residues typically have a high lignin and ash content. It would seem that these should raise serious concerns,” Narayan said. “The inorganic elements in this food eaten by the fish will be transported up the food web into humans — a fish food high in phosphorous or silicon could raise serious concerns.
“Statements like ‘we've eaten it and survived' are naive and dangerous,” he said. “Just because the product is made from fermentation residues does not automatically confer biodegradability.”
I tried to get more information about the material in the edible plastic from the manufacturer, a company in Mexico called Entelequia Sustainable Development, but to date they have not responded to my request for an interview.
So where did the story come from? I traced the initial coverage back to Plastics News' sister magazine Advertising Age, which did an item on the ad campaign for its Creativity section back on May 6.
The report quotes from the video ad, which includes some questionable information. For example, it claims that “most” discarded plastic six-pack rings end up in the ocean. That's silly. It also repeats some often-cited statistics about marine debris: that an estimated 1 million sea birds and 100,000 marine mammals and sea turtles ingest or become entrapped in plastic and die. Those numbers go back to 1984, they're often in news reports about plastic marine debris (indeed, they were included in the Los Angeles Times “Altered Oceans” report that won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting).
But, as Scientific American pointed out back in 2011, they are almost certainly incorrect, and they may have never been accurate.