Have you heard of “bioplastics”? They are being propagated as the next-gen packaging materials that are sustainable and bio-degradable. However, this has not been the case for all bioplastics. According to a UN report on marine plastics, “most packaging materials termed as bioplastics do not break down when they are disposed. They end up in oceans and contribute to the already dire situation of global plastic pollution.”
Last year, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) published a report on biodegradable plasticsrevealing that they rarely actually degrade. The reason behind this is that bioplastics require long-term exposure to high temperatures (around 122F, or 50C), like those found in large municipal composters, to actually break down. These specific conditions are not easily found in nature. You should not even expect to find these conditions in the oceans. With no drivers of degradation, even bioplastics cause harm like traditional plastic materials.
Just because bioplastics have the potential to be really eco-friendly with high sustainability, there is no guarantee that it will degrade easily. This is one element that most researchers have either ignored or simply skipped in order to look at the “bigger picture”. However, now a bigger challenge faces us as we have to deal with traditional plastic as well as bioplastics which are making a two-pronged attack to accelerate pollution on a global scale.
As Jacqueline McGlade, chief scientist at the UN Environment Programme, explains to the Guardian, “It’s well-intentioned but wrong. A lot of plastics labelled biodegradable, like shopping bags, will only break down in temperatures of 50C [122F] 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.” Due to the lack of buoyancy, the bioplastics will accumulate on the ocean floor and harm marine life in addition to causing other issues with respect to contamination.
Another serious perspective on bioplastics is that some of the additives that help make biodegradable plastics break down make it harder to recycle, and are potentially harmful to the natural environment. What good is a so-called sustainable packaging material that cannot even be recycled or degraded naturally? “There is a moral argument that we should not allow the ocean to become further polluted with plastic waste and that marine littering should be considered a ‘common concern of humankind’,” the authors of the report conclude.
The need of the hour is to keep a check on our habits and implement the three Rs in our life – reduce, reuse and recycle. Every time we buy packaging, it is important to ensure that we buy high-quality packaging materials so that it may be reused longer in various applications. The next time you think about throwing away a box, think again and try to reuse the material creatively so as to reduce pollution and optimize the utilization of natural resources.