Written by Elizah Leigh
If you look at photos of the ocean-bound, conventionally manufactured plastic circulating our global gyres (otherwise known as the 'great garbage patch' and – gulp – there are quite a lot of them out there), we’ve already done a crazy amount of damage to our natural environment. Think about it. Our world’s marine-based creatures are living amid our trash and slurping up a steady diet of pulverized Bisphenol-A (BPA) laden plastic particles. This reality is directly connected to the hot and heavy love affair we’ve had for decades upon decades with cheap, lightweight and easily disposable plastic, and this perpetual buying and purging cycle is so deeply engrained within the American psyche that biodegradable alternatives can’t come soon enough. But there’s a hitch.
Regular plastic – made from refined oil – is highly polluting and resource intensive despite being obtained from a naturally-occurring organic material... so you’d think that eco-plastic – made with plants – should be rocking a seriously green halo. Definitely not the case. Critics suggest that since this purportedly greener material is manufactured with a wide range of basic (and even questionable) organic ingredients and is exposed to strategic green washing, the wool is being pulled over our eyes. Here’s what you need to know to be a more informed consumer.
BENEFITS OF BIO-PLASTICS
- Reduces our dependence on refined oil.
- Upon breaking down, this alternative plastic actually fertilizes soil.
- Compared to conventional plastics, eco-versions don’t leach chemicals into soil or water.
- No toxic fumes are released when bio-plastics are incinerated.
- Offers a potential solution to the chronically poor rates of recycling in our country since eco-plastic packaging is designed to automatically biodegrade upon disposal.
- Since plastic typically makes up ¼ of all land-filled items, plant-based alternatives are better in terms of saving space since they’re meant to break down.
- Compared to the manufacturing process of mainstream plastics, PLA-based versions generate no pollution and 68% less carbon while consuming 65% less energy.
DRAWBACKS OF BIO-PLASTICS
- Genetically modified crops such as corn, potatoes, sugarcane and switch grass are used to create the majority of plant-based plastics.
- Corn and potato-based plastics require a huge volume of edible crops that could otherwise be used to feed the hungry.
- Using renewable plant resources instead of oil isn’t necessarily easier on the environment. Conventionally cultivated corn, for example, is fertilized liberally with highly polluting and toxic petro-chemicals.
- The bioplastic label covers plant-based polylactic acid (PLA) plastic as well as 100% petroleum-derived offerings such as Ecoflex, the latter of which only degrades in a commercial composting facility under extremely hot temperatures (rather than what typically exists in your backyard heap).
- Since the basic ingredients of eco-plastic can vary significantly (assorted types of plants and/or petroleum), it is difficult for recycling facilities to properly process it in their preexisting facilities. In fact, there are no US-based infrastructures in place to recycle this type of packaging.
- Plant based plastics can contaminate conventional plastic recycling, even in tiny amounts.
- Despite their claims, many HDPE and PET eco-plastic containers and packages aren’t always compostable or biodegradable. For example: Frito Lay’s SunChips bag, the exterior 'green' plastic barrel of Paper Mate's eco-pen, etc.
- Some packaging is embedded with ingredients that accelerate the degradation process, but instead of completely breaking down, the packaging can often end up converting into pellets that can persist for far more extended periods of time.
- Plant based plastics generate methane – one of the worst global warming offenders – throughout their decomposition process along with biomass and inorganic compounds.
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