Eco-Friendly Gifts Blog: Biodegradable Alternatives to Single Use Plastic - A Force for Good?
We are living in the age of the green revolution. It might just be the start, but there are promising signs that we are heading in the right direction.
One of these developments is to create solutions to stop the surge of plastic entering our natural environment, where it is having a devastating effect. Plastic pollution is a massive problem the whole world over, both for wildlife health and our own.
With plastic now entering our food supply, the health implications for humans could be terrible. One of the solutions, to reduce the scourge of plastic on our planet, are biodegradable alternatives to plastic made from renewable resources.
In this blog, we're going to look at the exciting developments of these plastic alternatives, and assess whether they stand up to the claims being made.
What's wrong with plastic?
To explain why we need alternatives to conventional plastic, we must understand what the problems are with plastic. Plastic has two big areas where it fails to meet an acceptable environmental standard: Production and disposal.
In fact, during the life span phase, plastic could also be having negative effects on our health. This is currently not as big an issue as the aforementioned areas of production and disposal, so we haven't focused particularly on the subject.
The production of conventional plastic involves the processing of fossil fuels. Crude oil and other fossil fuels are non renewable, and therefore unsustainable. One day, we are going to run out of fossil fuels. Some predict this day will arrive in our lifetime.
As well as CO2, other toxic emissions are also produced. This has been studied, and the population of local towns around plastic manufacturing plants have been negatively affected.
That's a round up of the production of plastic, now let's look at the disposal.
Plastic recycling is a subject that is hugely confusing to most of us. There is not one universal system, and plastic recycling rules vary depending on where you live. Only 9% of the plastic that's ever been produced has been recycled.
If plastic is put in the wrong bin, it could cause batch contamination. This means that the outlier and the surrounding plastic in the recycling waste stream will all be sent to landfill.
When plastic is not disposed of correctly, it can end up in the natural environment. This results in plastic pollution, and it's getting worse. With the effect on marine animals being potentially lethal, animal numbers are actively being reduced by plastic pollution.
Marine creatures such as turtles and seabirds are dying in huge numbers due to marine plastic pollution. If plastic blocks the windpipe of an animal, it can cause death through suffocation. If the plastic item makes its way through ingestion to the intestines, it can cause internal bleeding by piercing the intestinal tract.
If the plastic becomes lodged in the intestine, the animal will effectively starve to death. This is due to the animal thinking it's full, but in fact it is slowly starving to death without knowing it. If a turtle ingests one piece of plastic, it has a 22% chance of dying. If a turtle eats 14 pieces of plastic, that number rises sharply to 50%.
When pieces of plastic are originally less than, or broken down into, chunks less than 5mm in width, they are known as microplastics.
When microplastics enter the marine food chain, the first trophic level is usually zooplankton. These tiny creatures ingest the plastic, and pass all ingested plastic into the body of its predators body when zooplankton are eaten.
This process of plastic travelling it's way up the marine food chain is known as the trophic transfer of microplastics.
Studies have already found plastic in the bodies of seals and large fish, including cod. Who eats cod? We do. Plastic has now been found in human stool samples. Although it's impossible to say for definite that the plastic we ingest comes from the food we eat, there is a correlation between the two quantities.
Now we know a bit about what the problems are with conventional plastic, we can look at viable solutions to these issues.
Let's get a few terms straight. What we all think of as 'plastic' can be categorised as fossil fuel based non biodegradable plastic. This is a mouthful, so let's break it down.
As is is produced from fossil fuels, conventional plastic is fossil fuel based. Because it doesn't biodegrade, it's classed as non biodegradable.
If a material is biodegradable it will:
"Break down into biomass, CO2 and water, aided by microorganisms".
Conventional plastic is not biodegradable, as it just breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces of plastic (microplastics). For an alternative of conventional plastic to be viable, it must be able to biodegrade.
It must also be able to be produced from renewable resources in order to make the process sustainable.
A bioplastic is an alternative to conventional plastic produced from renewable resources. In a sense, a bioplastic is a 'plastic free version of plastic'. That's a terrible sentence, but it sums up bioplastics quite nicely if you were to explain it in a populist sense.
The chart below shows the four main groups of plastic, based on the two variables of biodegradability and raw resources. As you can see, just because a material is biodegradable, does not mean it has to be produced from renewable materials. This works the same when the variables are swapped - just because a material is made from renewable resources does not mean it will biodegrade.
We are going to focus on the top right group: biobased biodegradable bioplastics. These bioplastics are produced from renewable resources, and are able to biodegrade.
In other countries, different renewable resources are used to create PLA.
To form PLA, raw materials such as cornstarch are processed into sugar. This sugar is then fermented to form Lactic acid, which is then processed to form Lactide. This lactide is then processed to form PLA, which then goes off to be manufactured to create products such as cups, cutlery and packaging.
A really good in depth look at the full process, and other information regarding PLA, can be found here.
In order for a guarantee of full biodegradation taking place, the end of life disposal of biodegradable items must be controlled.
As well as biodegradable, our range of biodegradable items are also compostable.
Our definition for compostability is collated from several sources, including EU bioplastics. If a material is compostable, it will:
"Biodegrade in a set time frame, under set conditions, to form compost."
Being compostable is important, as it's the only scalable way to sustainably dispose of biodegradable items. We have developed a free post back scheme, LFHP Zero, that means your used compostable waste will be fully composted.
We guarantee any compostable waste sent back to us will be 100% composted, with zero waste going to landfill.
We have partnered up with an industrial composting partner, to fully compost any compostable waste we send to them.
LFHP Zero is necessary, because our compostable items are 'industrially compostable', not 'home compostable'.
This means special conditions are required for our compostable items to fully biodegrade. These conditions of prolonged high temperatures are not found in the home compost setting.
Where they are found is in industrial composting plants. If you were to put an industrially compostable item into a home compost bin, it will most likely take far longer to break down.
Legally, if an item is to be considered compostable, it must break down into compost in a set time frame. We've compiled a few sources to put together the infographic below.
As you can see, there are a couple of logos for industrially compostable materials, and one logo for home compostable materials.
Having either of the logos for industrial compostable materials, means that material is in regulation with accordance to EN13432 standards. These standards are the most wide spread and widely recognised criterion for industrial composting.
So if you see the Seedling logo (that's its formal name), or the OK Compost Industrial logo, it means that material or item is industrially compostable. You can use LFHP Zero to have your industrially compostable goods composted fully, with zero waste going to landfill.
If you see the OK Compost Home logo, it means the item or material will break down to form compost in your home compost setting.
Exact decomposition times are harder to find with home composting, as temperatures vary hugely depending on where you live, what time of year it is and many other factors.
A rough estimate, as we understand it, means that home compostable items should biodegrade fully within a year.
For food waste, the decomposition times are usually quicker than home compostable bioplastics. For an apple core or banana peel, decomposition time is roughly a single month. For an orange peel, it will biodegrade within roughly six months.
Are bioplastics the future?
We think so. With all the evidence that's right in front of us showing that we need vast, and fast, actions to reduce the amount of conventional plastic being produced.
With a failing recycling system still being pushed as the answer by large corporations making the plastic in the first place, there are huge obstacles to getting the plastic industry to react.
With the promise of good things that compostable bioplastics can bring to the world, we think they are the best solution to a problem which desperately needs solving.
Gifts For Eco Warriors
Our gifts for eco warriors are designed to replace gifts that don't take the environmental impact into account.
Our festival survival kits, pampering gift sets and biodegradable glitter gift sets, are all examples of how our range of gifts for eco warriors are making a positive difference in the gift giving world.
If you would like to read more about bioplastics, you can subscribe to our email list at the bottom of the page.