Waste News

Are biodegradable plastics actually good for the environment?

According to a UN report, biodegradable plastic, seen by many as a clean solution to ocean waste, provides a ‘false solution’ to the issue.

The report, published in May, states that throwing any kind of plastic into bodies of water, such as rivers or canals, leads to an influx of plastic debris and the spreading of “microplastics” into the world’s oceans.

Even biodegradable plastics, which have been long marketed as the saviour of ocean waste, is not truly effective due to the fact that the plastic needs to reach certain environmental conditions to break down at a reasonable rate.

According to the report, some of the biodegradable plastics require temperatures nearing that of industrial composters (50°C) in order to “breakdown completely into its constituent components of water, carbon dioxide, methane, on a reasonable or practical timescale.”

Jacqueline McGlade, who part wrote the report, said:

It’s well-intentioned but wrong. A lot of plastics labelled biodegradable, like shopping bags, will only break down in temperatures of 50°C and that is not the ocean.

“They are also not buoyant, so they’re going to sink, so they’re not going to be exposed to UV and break down.”

More than 300 million tonnes of plastic was produced in 2015, with 2,000 million tonnes expected to be produced by the year 2050.

The amount of plastic currently reaching the oceans is unclear but the report concluded that the “plastic debris, or litter, in the ocean is now ubiquitous.”

Aside from the damage that the plastics cause to sea creatures and other marine life, plastics have also been found to spread the habitat of jellyfish.

By literally hitching onto larger pieces of plastic, the creatures are able to travel further afield – something that is considered to be very dangerous due to the incredible amount of plankton that a single jellyfish can consume.

The UN also stated that the main solution in regards to plastics and the ocean should be via better waste collection and recycling methods – especially in the developing world.

McGlade also stated that by placing additives in plastics, to allow them to break down, actually makes the materials harder to recycle, potentially harming the environment further.

Andy has worked as a freelance journalist for a number of years and has been published in some of the UK’s top newspapers. He is now the editor Commercial Waste Magazine and contributes to a large selection of headlines and blog articles on the site.

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