Biodegradable Plastics Guide - Explore the Uses, Pros & Cons
Nov 22, 2023
Plastic is used in a variety of products, including bags, polys, boxes, bottles, and more. In everyday life, plastic is used by all of us, and this poses a threat to the environment. Plastic does not decompose easily and takes ages to degrade. To counter the serious effects of plastics, biodegradable plastics have been developed
Biodegradable plastic is more environmentally friendly as compared to conventional plastic. The materials that make up biodegradable plastic can be broken down by the environment's microorganisms. This causes it to naturally decompose when exposed to the environment.
What is biodegradable plastic made of?
Typically, petrochemicals with biodegradable additives and renewable raw materials are used to make biodegradable plastics. The production is somewhat the same as of traditional plastic with the exception that biodegradable plastics are made from materials that decompose or break down quickly. They are primarily divided into two groups.
Bioplastics that are made from all-natural plant materials, such as plants, corn oil, starches, or even citrus fruit peels. Biodegradable plastics are derived from conventional petrochemicals but are engineered to degrade more quickly. They have additives that hasten the rate of their breakdown in natural conditions like presence of oxygen, light, or moisture.
Here, we bring the uses of biodegradable plastics along with the pros and cons of these plastics.
What Are the Uses of Biodegradable Plastics?
Nowadays consumers are more aware of global warming and adverse effects of plastics on the environment. Hence, they are now inclined to use more biodegradable plastics.
Packaging – biodegradable plastics are widely used for packaging of various items including food materials. Compostable waste bags can also be made from biodegradable plastic.
- Agriculture – mulch films and agriculture covers are made of biodegradable plastics. These are used in farming to improve soil quality, control weeds, and retain moisture.
- Medical – Biodegradable plastics are used to make sutures and drug delivery systems. These can break down safely in the body and reduce the need for surgical removals. It is also used to manufacture screws, pins, plates, and materials for pills and capsules.
- Disposable cutlery - They are also used to manufacture disposable cutlery like food containers, trays, forks, spoons, plates, and knives. Teabags are also made from such plastics.
- Eco-friendly fibers – Some of the biodegradable plastics are used to manufacture fibers. This in turn is used to make clothing bags, accessories, and even footwear.
- Novelties – Nowadays biodegradable plastic is also used to make toys, novelties, and even fishing gear like fishing lines and nets.
- Few of the stationery items like pencils and sharpeners use biodegradable plastic. These can be easily decomposed as the raw material used breaks down under natural conditions.
What are the Pros and Cons of Biodegradable Plastics?
Biodegradable plastics typically take three to six months to break down when exposed to oxygen or light. Regular plastics can take up to a thousand years to decompose to the same degrees. It is hard to contradict the environmental advantages of biodegradable plastics over regular plastics. Biodegradable plastics are considered to be more environmentally friendly than conventional plastics. This type of plastic is undoubtedly a better option to reduce environmental pollution, but it still has drawbacks.
Pros of Biodegradable Plastics
- Reduce Pollution – Prolonged plastics harm the environment over the long term, but biodegradable plastics decompose into natural compounds. They can aid in reducing problems like landfill and ocean plastic pollution. Traditional plastic in trash may languish for hundreds of years before being burned, releasing toxic chemicals into the environment. In comparison, biodegradable plastic is better for the environment because it can be disposed of in a landfill rather than being burned.
- Renewable Resources – A lot of biodegradable materials, like cornstarch, sugarcane, or potato starch, are derived from sustainable sources. This lessens relying on limited fossil fuel supplies. Once the natural materials have been converted into polymers for use in creating biodegradable plastics, they can be combined with those created using oil molecules. As a result, it can lower the proportion that is derived from fossil fuels, and this blended product more often has greater strength than the conventional one.
- Compostability – Some biodegradable plastics are compostable, which means they can be broken down in composting facilities and add to soil enrichment while not leaving behind harmful residues. The microorganisms like bacteria and fungi that are present in the environment break down biodegradable plastics. These microorganisms rapidly deteriorate the biodegradable plastic's structure and metabolise the plastics, which is good for the environment.
- Less Carbon Emission - The production of biodegradable plastics typically results in lower greenhouse gas emissions than that of plastics made from petroleum. This may lead to reduced dependency on oil and smaller carbon footprints. In contrast to other varieties of regular plastics, biodegradable plastics are non-toxic because they don't contain or emit carbon, any chemicals, harmful pollutants or toxins.
- No Release of Toxins or Chemicals - Traditional plastics can release methane, hazardous substances, and other types of pollutants into the environment when they are discarded. These substances are potentially harmful as they degrade because they can easily harm both marine and terrestrial ecosystems as well as human health. Well-made biodegradable plastics degrade with few harmful byproducts, in contrast to traditional plastics. Instead, biodegradable plastics release a mixture of water and biomass.
- Easily Manageable waste - Products made of biodegradable plastic are a little more in harmony with nature. It is simpler to manage them better because their decomposition does not release harmful products. Bacteria in the soil begin to decompose it once it is buried. We are left with manageable amounts of waste as a result. Furthermore, because this decomposition process is natural, no fossil fuels or energy are used in the process, making it economical as well.
- Economic Opportunities - Regions have a great opportunity to generate income while also achieving their parallel goal of lowering their carbon and waste footprints. Biodegradable plastics are now a viable option for companies looking to lessen their environmental impact as numerous regions and nations have implemented laws and incentives to encourage their use. The development and use of biodegradable plastics may open up new business opportunities and lead to employment in waste management, manufacturing, and research.
Biodegradable plastics decompose into non-toxic components, making them less likely to harm wildlife when they end up in naturalistic environments.
Cons of Biodegradable Plastics
Specific Conditions - To degrade efficiently, biodegradable plastics need particular environmental factors, such as high temperatures and moisture. They might withstand environmental deterioration like traditional plastics if these conditions are not met. Temperature and humidity are key factors in this process. Composting moves much more slowly during the winter and ceases during periods of extreme humidity.
- Breakdown Timeline - The type of plastic and environmental factors can have a big impact on how quickly biodegradable plastics degrade. Degradation of some may take years. Some types don't completely deteriorate. Biodegradable plastics can be even more harmful to the environment when they only partially degrade because the smaller fragments (known as microplastics) are more difficult to detect or clean up.
- Recycling Hindrance - Waste management systems may become disorganised due to biodegradable plastics. They can contaminate recycling streams or impede recycling when combined with non-biodegradable plastics. When a hybrid reaches the end of its lifespan, the current technologies cannot recycle it. Alternatively, they have to be disposed of in landfills or handled through other waste management techniques.
- Land and Resource Use - The manufacture of biodegradable plastics may necessitate the use of significant amounts of land and resources, such as farmland for the growth of feedstock. As a result, it is a problem in developing countries. Biodegradable plastics also require some of the other limited, valuable resources like water. This may lead to concerns about deforestation and turmoil with the food industry.
- Costing – Biodegradable plastics are often more expensive to produce than traditional plastics. There is a need for costly industrial processors and composters which can be a barrier to widespread adoption, especially for businesses seeking cost-effective solutions. Apart from cost, there is a need for the availability of equipment, which may be a problem.
- Misuse and Litter - As biodegradable plastics do not have standardised labelling or certification, it is difficult for customers to determine which products are truly eco-friendly. Apart from this, some individuals may erroneously think that biodegradable plastics can be discarded carelessly, which could result in improper disposal techniques.
- Ocean Pollution – Because the ocean waters are too cold, these types of plastics cannot decompose there. As a result, these plastics will either float on the water or break down into tiny pieces that could be harmful to marine life. Therefore, not all pollution issues can be resolved by using this type of plastic.
Biodegradable plastics are produced using renewable resources and have advantages over conventional plastics. They are not, however, a good everyday item despite this. We still need to use the products with caution as there are not many options with us. Though, biodegradable plastics are safer, eco-friendly and sustainable products to use, if disposed properly.