Should you avoid using Degradable plastics?

Degradable products are not what our supermarkets want you to believe.

We all know plastics are bad for our earth. In fact, it’s estimated that 8 million tons of plastic are dumped into our oceans every year. We continue to use plastics - every day. 

Let’s look at our garbage disposal methods. Many Australians are trying to do the right thing by buying ‘degradable’ garbage products, but these aren’t the Eco-friendly products the big supermarkets want us to believe.

The three main choices of biodegradables are Oxo-Degradable, Compostable and Landfill-Biodegradable.

Degradable products have an additive that sets off a slow chemical reaction to fragment the plastic into little pieces over 1-2 years. However, thousands of little pieces of plastics are even worse for our environment and are more likely to be widely spread and consumed by land animals or fish in our oceans. The degradation process of these products also needs oxygen and sunlight, so when buried in a landfill, it won’t degrade at all.

At this time, these are the only supposedly ‘eco-friendly’ garbage products available in any of Australia’s big supermarkets.

Compostable products are made from renewable sources and will quickly biodegrade in a commercial compost facility, but not in a backyard compost or garden bed. Very few Australian councils offer commercial composting. As such, these products end up in a landfill where they do not biodegrade at all.

Landfill Biodegradable products achieve biodegradation by enabling microorganisms to break down the molecular structure of the plastic, which produces an organic matter - a natural plant fertiliser.  

At Ethics Disrupted, we choose Landfill Biodegradable products. They are:

  • 100% biodegradable in landfill
  • 100% recyclable with other mainstream plastics
  • Don’t fragment into smaller pieces
  • Don’t require special storage conditions
  • Begin biodegrading at time of disposal
  • Don’t need oxygen to biodegrade

In a nutshell, about 90% of plastic waste goes to a landfill, and this is where it should biodegrade. To reduce the waste in our environment, we should use landfill biodegradable garbage products that won’t harm the environment.

Landfill Biodegradable Plastics - Frequently Asked Questions * 

How does it work and why is landfill biodegradable the best choice? Landfill Biodegradable uses a patented additive to make our disposable products landfill-biodegradable. This means that the plastics will decompose under typical landfill environmental conditions much faster than traditional plastics which have an indefinite lifespan.  Biodegradation of plastic is achieved by enabling microorganisms to metabolise (i.e. break down) the molecular structure of the plastic, which produces an humus-like material (organic matter that cannot break down any further) which is a natural plant fertiliser.  There are two different ways this is achieved in the industry.

Landfill-Biodegradable Plastics are made by combining traditional plastic, which is petroleum-based, with an organic additive.  The biodegradation only begins when the plastic is exposed to a microbe-rich environment such as in a landfill.   The additive attracts microbes to the plastic, and they start to digest it.   As they do this, the enzymes the microbes secrete cause the plastic polymer molecules to break down into shorter chains, which the microbes can then begin to digest them too. The biodegradability of plastic can be confirmed using the standard laboratory test ASTM D5511.

Advantages of Landfill-Biodegradable plastics:

  • Currently, approximately 90% of plastic waste goes to a landfill.  This then is where the product should be designed to biodegrade.
  • No change in consumer’s disposal habits is required, which has been shown to be a big problem in the past.
  • Products made with a landfill-biodegradable additive are mainstream recyclable.
  • There are no shelf life issues as the plastic will only biodegrade when disposed to a landfill

How long will it take a plastic item to biodegrade? The biodegradation time of a product depends on a variety of factors.  These landfill-biodegradable additives will make plastic biodegrade up to 95% faster than conventional plastic.  The thicker the plastic section, the longer it will take to biodegrade. Membrane films are expected to degrade in 45 days or so. Thicker sections may take 1- 5 years. If the plastic is put into a dry landfill, it will degrade slower than a more actively managed water moistened landfill. The main point to realise is whether it takes a few months or multiple years it does not matter. What does matter is that after some limited time, the product will no longer be around?  We are no longer leaving our plastic waste for future generations to deal with.

Why do ASTM Testing to verify biodegradability? With so many manufacturers and retailers offering Green Products, it has become confusing to distinguish between what is a genuine biodegradable product, what is a compostable product, what is a degradable product and what are unsubstantiated claims. ASTM tests are tests recognised internationally as being the benchmark of verifications. The ASTM test D5511 is a test performed by an independent laboratory to verify claims of biodegradability in anaerobic conditions, with the aim to replicate conditions found in a typical landfill.

Is it better to recycle used plastic items? Yes, we should recycle as much as possible. The EPA promotes reduce, reuse, recycle and composting (a form of biodegradation) as ways to reduce waste. However according to PACIA (Plastics and Chemicals Industries Association), only 19% of plastics are recycled in Australia, the rest end up in a landfill. Therefore while some plastic items can be recycled, only a few of them ever make that journey. Most would still end up buried in a landfill. The math is simple to perform: One hundred percent of plastic items discarded into a landfill biodegrading or only 19 percent of plastic being recycled while the rest persists for hundreds of years. A report was recently published in the US stating that recycling only begins to have a positive environmental impact once rates of 50% or higher are achieved. This is why it is a better environmental solution to have both biodegradable and recyclable. It is going to take decades to get recycling rates up to the 80 – 90% range. Unless changes are made to switch to biodegradable products we will be continuing to contribute to the overwhelming global plastic pollution problem. Landfill biodegradable plastics are a solution we have available to us today. The plastic fully integrates into the existing recycling infrastructure; i.e. all treated plastic (landfill-biodegradable plastic) that ends up in landfills will naturally biodegrade to biogas and soil. Plus the methane can, and is, being used at hundreds of landfills to create clean energy, which offsets the need to use additional fossil fuel for electricity.

Is there any toxic residue left after biodegradation? No. There is no toxic residue when the biodegradable plastic decomposes. Plastic such as polyethene breaks down to CH4, C02 and organic matter.

When PVC biodegrades, what happens to the vinyl chloride? Will it leach into the groundwater? No definitely not. Once the polymer chain is broken during biodegradation, it allows oxygen to enter which will attach itself to the hydrogen and carbon creating H2O and CO2 or as we know it as water and carbon dioxide. The lone chlorine atom bonds to a hydrogen atom creating a very weak salt that does not have any adverse effect on the ecosystem. 

Is the additive safe? Yes, the biodegradable plastic is very safe. In fact, food packaging film made with the additive is USFDA compliant for food contact applications. Our products which are designed for groundwater sampling have been tested to ensure they provide the same high sampling integrity as you would see with a non-biodegradable equivalent.

*Exert -

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