It is estimated that people in the UK use 5m tonnes of plastic every year, around half of which is single-use packaging. This is only set to grow, and at our current trajectory we are set to have more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050 - a fact that every eco warrior has heard, despite it being provenly difficult to calculate.
In an effort to reduce environmental impact (and cater to an increasing amount of sustainability-conscious customers), many supermarkets and businesses have started to reduce their plastic consumption. Iceland has pledged that its own-brand items will be plastic-packaging free by 2023. Tesco, which has set its target at 2025, has reduced the amount of plastic in some of its packaging – including meat trays – and made supportive noises about the much-mooted deposit-return scheme. Even single use water bottles, once widespread at events, are now starting to be replaced by . The London Marathon offered runners seaweed pouches at some of the aid stations, reducing the need for so many plastic bottles. All of this is in response to the 2018 European Parliament vote to introduce a ban on single-use plastic items by 2021 in a bid to limit future environmental damage.
Banning plastics, however, introduces the need for replacements. Alternatives to plastic are needed and being either compostable or biodegradable is a step towards being eco friendly. So what alternatives are best and what is the difference between them all.
If something is biodegradable, it will eventually break down into smaller and smaller pieces by natural processes. Depending on what the item is, it could take anything from 6 months to 1000 years to break down. This means that almost any product could be labelled as "biodegradable" because most things will break down at some point in the future whether they are derived from nature, such as a banana skin, or made from chemicals - even some conventional plastics will eventually break down into smaller, sometimes more toxic, components.
The environmental thinktank Green Alliance suggested there was evidence that by using terms such as ‘biodegradable’, customers were more likely to discard items into the environment, making pollution on land and at sea even worse.
Meaning that the term Biodegradable can be misleading and biodegradable materials are not necessarily compostable. So, when a company or product is biodegradable, look for if they specify the time frame of when the product is set to break down so you can understand if it is a truly sustainable product. An example of the need for such transparancy are those "eco friendly" supermarket bags which is not always clear on when it is going to break down.
Compostable materials are materials that have been certified to break down completely into non-toxic components (water, carbon dioxide, and biomass) that will not harm the environment, given the right conditions. The time it takes for something to break down depends largely on the product itself and the composting conditions.
Some materials can decompose in your home compost (like loose tea leaves and apple cores) but not all compostable materials are suitable for composting at home. Bio-plastics (compostable alternatives to conventional plastic packaging) are fully plant-derived and fully compostable but they require higher levels of heat, water, oxygen and microorganisms to fully break down than what your home compost can provide. For anything to be legally labelled compostable, it has to have been certified to break down in industrial (council) composting facilities within 180 days.
Compostable plastics must be composted in industrial conditions, and should not be placed in the recycling bin. As such, these ‘alternative plastics’ are often best limited to closed environments, such as universities and hospitals, which can help the packaging make its way to the correct facilities. Otherwise, it is unclear whether they are significantly better than conventional, recyclable plastic.
Household recycling rates in Britain are around 46% (2017), with only 31% of plastics estimated to be recycled in 2018 (as opposed to incinerated or ending up in landfill). Recycling rates are thankfully improving, but need all the help they can get. If you have unavoidable plastic waste, make sure to recycle it properly. Recycling plastic significantly reduces the need for new plastic to be made which positively benefits our environment.
Recycling is simply the breaking down of specific materials to then re-use and convert into another material. For instance breaking down plastic water bottles to then re-build into another bottle. It is the most common solution to solve plastic waste. So it conserves resources, reduces landfill, conserves energy usage and protecting the environment compared to landfill showing that it is a great step forward for those last bits of single use plastic.
It is clear that there is no simple one-size-fits-all solution to our plastic problem. There are times when it is evident that for such an environmentally costly material, plastic is being used in the wrong way, and businesses should look for alternatives where appropriate. There are a multitude of factors to take into account, from the energy demands of creating a material, to the uses and benefits it might have during its life, to its disposal after that life is up. There is no simple solution, except to use less.
Alternative plastics won’t ‘cure’ our belief that once we dispose of an item it simply disappears, and it is possible that they may in fact perpetuate the disposable culture at the root of the crisis we’re currently seeing. We need to better understand how to sort our own domestic plastic before blindly switching to alternatives, and consider how much we really need a constant supply of disposable items at all.