A new headline from Vice News shouts, “Biodegradable Plastic Is Bullsh*t.”
Biodegradable plastics have been around for decades, and they were originally hailed as a breakthrough development for nascent recycling and marine environmental movements.
But almost as soon as biodegradable plastic came on the market, it became a source of controversy. In one 16-month period in the early 1990s, more than 48 legal actions were taken for false advertising related to biodegradeable plastics, which weren’t so much biodegradable as they were compostable — sort of.
The American Society for Testing and Materials developed new standards for advertising these materials more honestly. In 2011, even those standards were withdrawn after certain manufacturers took advantage of the new rules.
A new report from the United Nations Environmental Programme explains why biodegradable plastics have failed to live up to their name. Many of these so-called green plastics can be broken down, but only if they are placed in a composter that is then heated to 122 degrees Fahrenheit for a prolonged period of time. The UN report looked at how biodegradable and compostable plastics react in the ocean, and determined those compostable conditions are “rarely if ever met in the marine environment.”
Even worse, biodegradable plastics cause problems for recycling programs that have been proven to work. Plastic containers and packaging make up 39.9% of the material recycled by consumers, the largest category of recycled goods. But consumers are ironically less likely to recycle biodegradable plastics, and even if they do, those materials can cause major problems for recycling plants.
“The real bottom line is that biodegradable plastics aren’t going to be a solution for reducing the impact of marine litter,” said Peter Kershaw, the report’s author. “When you see ‘biodegradable’ on a plastic bag, for example, does that mean if you drop it in the streets, it’s just going to disappear? No, it doesn’t.”
Ultimately, the UN report concluded that biodegradable plastics could do more harm than good. For consumers looking to keep plastics out of the ocean, the prescription remains the same as it ever was: reduce, reuse, recycle.