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Why Biodegradable Appliances Are Not The Problem They Can Solve
- Dec 18, 2018 -

Botanical, compostable or biodegradable bioplastics, most commonly used in tableware, are sold as a sustainable alternative to disposable plastics. But are they better, or ironic, even worse than plastic?

We sat down with CélineJennison, founder of Plastic Tides, a non-profit organization based in Ithaca, New York, combining adventure and science to solve plastic pollution problems with stand-up paddles. She explains why plastic or biodegradable bioplastics, a seemingly good alternative to plastics, may be worse than plastics. She also shared her favorite alternatives and solutions that fit easily into your lifestyle.

What does this mean when the packaging on bioplastic products is biodegradable or compostable?

Essentially, it means in industrial composting facilities - they can break down bioplastics into small pieces and compost with very high heat - it will biodegrade or compost.

Can those products really be made up of ordinary people?

They don't really collapse in a family-sized compost bin. In order to decompose, they must be composted in industrial composting facilities, and the temperature will become very high due to the large amount of compost. Another problem is that even if they are composted, the quality of the compost is not very good. The “compostable” bioplastics break down into a very viscous resinous piece that produces poor compost, which is not rich and nutritious for plants like real organic compost.

In Ithaca, New York, I studied undergraduate students at Cornell University. Because of various problems, the city does not allow people to put compostable appliances into the waste stream.

Are most of the products labeled biodegradable, degradable, compostable, etc. really unrecyclable?

that's right. They cannot be recycled because they are not plastic. If they are placed in the recirculation, it may block the waste stream. Plastics must be separated by color even when recycling plastic. Therefore, when recycling arrives at the sorting facility, if they find items that cannot be recycled (such as compostable appliances), rather than taking the time to classify them all, they simply send them all to the landfill. There is also a large potential negative impact on the recycle stream.

For example, if a restaurant provides "compostable" appliances when people are taking out, the likelihood that their customers will properly handle compostable appliances is very low. If they provide them in the restaurant and send them to industrial facilities, they need a lot of signs to make sure people put them in compost instead of recycling; and [they need] sort by recycling to remove any thrown in. Composting equipment. Otherwise, the entire batch is likely to be eventually landfilled.

A student volunteer at the Floyd Fest Festival in Floyd, Virginia, sent compostable cutlery to the shredder.

A student volunteer at the Floyd Fest Festival in Floyd, Virginia, sent compostable cutlery to a shredder and cut it into small pieces for faster decomposition in the compost pile.

This will undoubtedly undermine the purpose. Are there other negative results that may cause more waste?

Yes. Creating biodegradable or compostable utensils or tableware requires a lot of resources.

Most compostable tableware is made from corn. Corn is a densely growing annual crop that is usually grown in a single cultivation system. It must be sown and watered, and the soil is cultivated. Corn used to make bioplastics is not organic and is also used in many pesticides. The end result is that valuable agricultural land is used to make something that has been thrown away.

Then, the environmental costs of the treatment, as well as the environmental impact of the resources that first manufactured and transported the product.

Ironically, compostable tableware is typically wrapped in a non-biodegradable or recyclable plastic film. Therefore, there are many costs, including compostable appliances that are more expensive than reusable items that can be washed and used for many years.

So you said that these products may be the worst! Do you think recycled plastic is a better choice?

It all depends on the specific situation and how the plastic or bioplastics are handled. If you want to recycle plastic appliances, from an environmental point of view, it is actually a better choice than compostable, unless you are sure that compostable products will be composted in industrial facilities.

But if the bioplastic fork eventually floats in the ocean, will it eventually break like plastic?

No. A fork made of biodegradable plastics will do.

Biodegradable CPLA Cutlery Set