What Is Compostable Plastic and How Is It Made
Plastic became a vital aspect of our daily lives. From the takeaway coffee cup that is so essential when you rush to work - or the straw in your lemonade - to the glittery microscopic fragment in your powder or the levers on the joystick, plastic is all around us. No wonder that since we started mass-production in the 1950s, 6.3 billion tons of plastic were thrown away. However, we succeed in recycling 600 million tons. So, there is still hope!
To fight these numbers, more and more environment-friendly alternatives to traditional plastic have emerged on the market. One of the most popular ones remains compostable plastic. How is it made, and where should we throw it away? Is it the most environmental-friendly alternative to traditional plastic?
If you are interested in finding answers to these questions and wish to read more about the challenges and opportunities of using compostable plastic products, you are in the right place.
The Next Generation of Plastic
Experts’ prediction that by 2050 there might be more plastic than fish in the sea has brought great awareness and a much-needed sense of urgency to the problem of environmental protection. People have started paying more attention to how they consume plastic and how they could replace it with more sustainable alternatives.
This is the reason why so many people turned to compostable, biodegradable or even edible packaging materials. These materials can be broken down by microbes, chewed up, and turned into biomass, water, and carbon dioxide.
When even the giants in the food sector are nowadays trying to integrate eco-friendly alternatives to plastic packaging, you know the circumstances are alarming. We already know that about 8 million tons of plastic end up in the oceans. Take a minute to let that fact fully sink in. It is no wonder why businesses try to decrease their CO2 footprint.
A winning quality of compostable plastics is that they are manufactured from renewable resources. If correctly disposed of and sent to an "In-Vessel Composting Facility" along with food waste, these can be reprocessed into compost. Therefore, they are not only broken down by microbes but can also be turned into compost.
Regarding the production process, manufacturing compostable plastic uses less energy and creates fewer greenhouse gas emissions than the ones associated with standard plastic production. The final products (bags, food or clothes packaging, cups, and so on) are made from plants and natural fibers instead of petrochemicals from fossil fuels.
Don’t forget: Dumping a plastic product in the environment is still littering, compostable, or otherwise. Burying it is not the same as composting a product.
For example, that milk carton with a Seedling logo you're ready to throw away will not decompose in a brief time - or maybe never fully - in your backyard compost. Compostable materials can decompose only conditioned by five key elements: microbes, oxygen, moisture, warmth, and time.
Compostable Plastic vs. Biodegradable Plastic
It would be best to keep in mind that compostable plastic is also biodegradable, but not every biodegradable plastic is compostable. While biodegradable plastic may be manufactured to decompose in soil or water, compostable refers to biodegradation into soil conditioned by certain elements -– microbes, oxygen, moisture, warmth, and time.
There is indeed one big problem: compostable plastic requires an industrial facility that uses heat to properly break down the material. With all of that, it keeps its promise and remains one of the most efficient eco-friendly alternatives to plastic.
Today there are many types of compostable plastic bags available on the market. Different products come with different characteristics, including variations in strength, color, and resilience.
Imogen Napper’s Experiment
One of the most meaningful researches which prove that compostable plastic products are a lot more environment-friendly than biodegradable ones is the study developed by the researchers from the University of Plymouth and conducted by the scientist Imogen Napper.
The team tested and compared for the first time compostable bags, two forms of biodegradable bags, and conventional carrier bags. These were exposed to different environments (sea, air, and earth) for three entire years.
The results were completely unexpected: the compostable bag appeared to honor its promise. However, the biodegradable bags were still able to carry produce after three years of being buried in the soil and the sea.
The compostable sample completely disappeared after three months in the marine environment. However, it was still present in the soil after 27 months of being buried. A compostable bag kept under the same conditions, could not carry any groceries. The material tore apart under the lightest weight.
Waste Management of Compostable Plastic
There is a considerable amount of general confusion regarding the appropriate place to throw your compostable garbage bags. Often, people have good intentions and try to protect nature through their actions, but they fail to do so for lack of information. An essential element in leading a sustainable lifestyle is being and staying informed.
First, keep in mind that although compostable plastics are technically recyclable, they cannot be recycled back into plastic. Actually, these are handled as impurities during the conventional plastics’ recycling process.
On the other hand, not all compostable plastics are manufactured to decompose in your backyard. Therefore, you should know that the label is where you should find your answer almost every time for any uncertainties regarding a specific product.
The Plastic Recycling Bins
Compostable plastics are not made to be recycled, and they can easily contaminate and disrupt the recycling process if mixed with non-compostable plastics. As mentioned before, these environment-friendly plastics are taken as impurities in the recycling process. As a result, their main purpose, that of creating compost, would not be fulfilled.
However, ask around the neighborhood and find out if your community has a residential compost collection program. Then check with the recycling company to find out if they will accept compostable plastic products under this program.
Your Backyard Compost
Unless the label of your compostable plastic product indicates that it is okay for home composting, you should not try to compost it yourself. Let the professionals deal with this task. Plastic products labeled as compostable are usually intended to be discharged to an industrial or commercial composting facility.
These facilities can offer higher temperatures and different breakdown conditions which are not generally found in a typical backyard. To find out about these facilities, you should also get in touch with your community’s recycling company.
All you have to know about landfills is that they are usually sealed, airtight, and therefore oxygen-free containers located within the ground. As you know by now, the decomposing process needs oxygen.
Since landfill conditions usually mean no oxygen, the compostable materials we want to throw away would not decompose. They, instead, either persist for a long time or break down anaerobically (without oxygen).
Otherwise, if compostable plastic products are placed in open landfills where oxygen is available, they will decompose at some point with other biodegradable products. However, it can take years, considering a landfill does not offer all the vital elements for decomposing.
Plastic in the Middle of a Pandemic
Lately, the focus on plastic waste reduction and more eco-friendly alternatives has been overshadowed by the Covid-19 pandemic. There was a considerable rise in mass plastic consumption. Furthermore, some regulatory measures meant to reduce plastic have been delayed or canceled.
All the disposable face masks, gloves, sanitizer bottles, and plastic packaging for takeaway service, e-commerce outlets, and express delivery industries threaten the entire progress we have made so far.
By all means, a balance should be found between protecting our health and lowering the environmental damage during the Covid-19 pandemic. It’s important to keep in mind, though, that the plastic consumption problem has only been magnified by the pandemic and that the real cause remains the consumer behavior and the company’s misleading information.
Deconstructing Myths and Fake News
Unfortunately, myths and fake news easily influence the masses to go for traditional plastic products. The strategy is even more efficient when they claim half-truths. One of the most harmful so-called news was about the virus being more resistant on non-plastic surfaces (like reusable compostable bags made of cloth and other materials).
In this scenario, the single-use plastic shopping bag remains the best and safest solution. Some experts recommend taking a different plastic bag each time you go shopping and immediately discarding it once you are home.
Being confronted with fake news and misinformation in the current troubling times, many scientists, researchers, and even eco-friendly brands like ourselves felt obliged to take action. It is crucial to bring awareness to these issues. People behind fake news are not looking for the best of the public but only follow their own interests.
It was actually demonstrated by many companies and researchers that the new virus lasts longer on plastic than on cloth items in general. Therefore, we can still protect the environment by choosing our shopping tote bag instead of a single-use plastic one.
It is becoming increasingly crucial for readers to approach any material with criticism and conduct their own research. Follow up on different sources, compare information, and critically analyze it. We have access to knowledge, but this also comes with great responsibility.
All in all, when it comes to plastic pollution, you can see why the most sustainable choice remains using durable, reusable products. Although, it is essential to keep in mind that there is no magical way to end the plastics crisis. The solution lies in hard work and consistency. The ultimate purpose remains not to use plastics at all, but we have a long road until we reach that point.
It will be a long, exhausting, but rewarding process. All levels of government, industry, and society have a crucial role in implementing and respecting actions to move us towards a zero plastic waste future. Right now, our primary role and responsibility in this process is to keep choosing eco-friendly alternatives instead of old harmful habits for our planet.
Therefore, try to pay attention to your consumption habits and restrict them, not only for the sake of the planet but for your own good. No matter what, you can always get your over-the-shoulder tote bag for a walk. Keep taking more steps towards a fully #plasticfree life.