Are biodegradable plastics the solution to plastic pollution?

Earlier this week, the world celebrated national earth day. And as is routine every 22 April, people in various parts of the world gathered to plant trees, clean up streets, while some sat in the confines of their homes, perhaps reflecting how human actions and inactions affect the environment.

This year, conversations on Earth day focused on the persistent global challenge of plastic pollution and the adverse effect of the “use and throw away” lifestyle we now practice. Unfortunately, majority of the talks and reflections end with the day. By the next morning, activities that pollute the environment continue.

As the world’s population grows—from over 7.3 billion in 2015 to 7.6 billion 2018—so will waste produced increase. And as we advance in technology and lifestyle, we will continue to evolve in our ‘on-the go’ lifestyles, which demand that we ‘use and throw’. This lifestyle, which is fueled by plastic packaging, has led to an increasing amount of plastic pollution around the world. According to Plastic Oceans, around 50 percent of plastics are used just once.

For example, after an order of rice, chicken, moi-moi and a drink from Chicken Republic in Ikoyi, Lagos State, Nigeria, on delivery, one receives 3 plastic bags, 2 plastic plates (one for the rice and one for the moin-moin) 2 plastic bottles (one carbonated drink and one water) and 2 plastic cutlery, making it a total of 9 disposable plastics heading for the trash when the meal is done.

Plastics in the ocean. Photo: PROKevin Krejci

Plastic makes up around 13 percent of the waste stream, representing 32 million tons of waste, and just about 9 percent of these plastic goes into recycling programs. The remainders enter landfills and seas where it takes up space and often hurts wildlife.

Onegreen planet noted that a 2013 experiment conducted by scientists in Spain led to the discovery of a dead sperm whale whose death was caused by intestinal blockage. In its digestive system were 59 pieces of plastic waste totaling 37 pounds in weight. In total, it is estimated that ingestion of plastic kills 1 million marine birds and 100,000 marine animals each year.

Each year, over 8 million tonnes of plastic go into the oceans. It is estimated that by 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the world. The sea presently contains about 51 trillion micro plastic particles – 500 times more than stars in our galaxy.

Some industry specialist say plastics are not causing a trash problem. Others say that the kind of plastics might be the cause of the plastic overflow, while some others have proffered biodegradable plastic—plastics that can be broken down by microorganisms (bacteria or fungi) into water, carbon dioxide (CO2) and some bio-material exist—as a lasting solution to the waste problem. Others believe recycling can tackle of the world’s biggest environmental challenges.

Carsten Wachholz, senior policy officer for the circular economy at the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), does not agree with this thought.  He believes “we cannot recycle our way out of the plastic pollution wave because we are using too much plastic in the first place.”

Turtle tangled in plastic. Photo: NOAA News Online

Currently, there are over 8.3 billion metric ton of plastic and most of these come as disposable products that end up in trash cans. This overwhelming number means that about a million plastic are bought every minute in forms of plastic drinks and other bottled liquids. Analysis carried out by Greenpeace shows that top beverage brands produce the greatest numbers of plastic bottles. Each year, Coca-Cola produces more than 100 billion disposable plastic bottles that are used just once. The research notes that the top six drink companies in the world use a combined average of 6.6 percent of recycled PET in their products and most of these companies have no intent to increase their use of 100 percent recyclable plastic or a biodegradable plastic.

To curb the increasing use of these plastics, some countries in the world have started with the ban of plastic bags, while others place huge taxes on companies that are reliant on plastic bags for packaging or production.

In Africa, Eritrea banned plastic bags in 2005. Tanzania did same in 2006. Botswana also placed a levy on plastic bags in 2007, and by 2008 Rwanda completely banned plastic bags in the country. Mauritania followed suit in 2013 by issuing a ban on the use, manufacture, and importation of plastic bags. Next in line was Cameroon, which outlawed disposable plastic bags in 2014. In 2016, Morocco, Africa’s second largest consumer of plastic bags, banned the use of plastic bags.

Plastic waste by the ocean. Photo: Vaidehi Shah

Placing bans may crackdown on the use and supply of plastic bags, but it does not solve the bigger environmental problem of plastic pollution, not when plastic litter lie as waste by roadsides, in landfills and at seashore.

Initially, people advocated for the use of biodegradable plastics because they have the tendency to break down over the course of several months unlike their plastic counterpart, depending on the materials and the conditions of their disposal. However, Jacqueline McGlade, chief scientist at the UN Environment Programme has warned against the use these biodegradable plastics because they are a false solution to the ubiquitous problem of litter in the oceans.

He stated that much of the biodegradable plastic floating in the ocean will only break down in temperatures of 50°C, much higher than ocean water temperatures. He noted that biodegradable plastics are not buoyant, hence they won’t stay on the surface to be broken down by UV rays.Also, some other industry experts explain that the standard catalyst used to make biodegradable plastics are metal based and as such are difficult or expensive to remove from the final material.

Given that the options of recycling, recycled PET and biodegradable plastics have not been very effective in reducing the plastics on land and sea, we can only hope that soon, all our plastics would come from plants instead of oil. This way, bio-plastics—plastics made from plants—will be environmental friendly and easy to degrade.