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Biodegradable Plastics: The unknown facts of eco-friendly plastic products

Biodegradable Plastics: The unknown facts of eco-friendly plastic products February 1, 2019Leave a comment
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With a major need for environmental concern, more and more people are looking for ways to avoid consuming plastic products and looking for eco-friendly plastic alternatives for everyday products. While some people are going the zero waste route, some are opting for products labeled as biodegradable plastics. Although biodegradable plastics and biobased compostable plastics are not new alternatives to traditional petroleum-based plastics, there still seems to be a lot of confusion surrounding “greener” plastic products.

Does that one-word label please you enough to buy that product and throw that litter? How long does it take for a “biodegradable plastic” to degrade? Is it toxic or non-toxic?

Of course, some companies are diligent and can back up their biodegradability claims with real evidence. But others are not.

For the average consumer, it’s hard to pick out the good claims from the bad ones.

This post will help make some sense of it all.

Biodegradable Plastics: The Definition

Biodegradation is a chemical process in which materials are metabolized into the water, carbon dioxide, and biomass by microorganisms. Depending on the material, toxic residues may remain.

The process of biodegradation is influenced by a number of conditions, including temperature, humidity, oxygen levels, the presence of bacteria and time.

Biodegradable Plastics: The Company’s definition

There is actually no single common understanding or definition of “biodegradable”, so different companies will mean different things when they use this label. That makes it pretty confusing for us.

You might assume that if a product is labeled “biodegradable”, it will be non-toxic, it will break down in home compost bins, and/or it will break down quickly.

But this isn’t necessarily the case.

The good news is, if a product is truly biodegradable, the company should be able to provide details supporting this claim.

Types of Biodegradable Plastics

The CPCB (Central Pollution Control Board) report identifies some kinds of plastics, which claim to be biodegradable but only partially,

1. Oxo-degradable plastics:

They break down when exposed to sunlight or oxygen, and break into smaller bits, which remain in the environment.

2. Semi-biodegradable plastic:

They blend plant starch and polyethylene (a polymer used for polybags) and only the starch component decomposes.

3. Photo-degradable plastic:

Degrades on exposure to light.

A third type claims biodegradability on exposure to water. The only standards on this require that within six months, the plastic must have disintegrated into bits smaller than 2 millimeters and that biodegradation must have progressed so that at least 30% of the carbon has been converted by microorganisms (such as bacteria) into carbon dioxide. This leaves the plastic to contaminate the seas for six months and more. And if they touch the bottom of the sea, they may not degrade at all, because it is much colder than the 30 degrees Celsius that is their ideal degradation temperature. According to scientists, such micro-plastics cause extreme damage to marine life.

Biodegradable Standards: What They Are and What They Mean

Because there are no defined understanding around what “biodegradability” means, certification schemes have been developed based on scientific standards and testing.

Certification is a way for companies to back up the claims they make about the biodegradability of their packaging and/or their products with scientific data.

Whilst voluntary, these schemes are attractive to companies wanting to demonstrate environmental responsibility and safety of their products.

As consumers, knowing that the packaging/product is certified gives us peace of mind, and helps us make better purchasing decisions.

These are the standards to look out for.

Standards for Biodegradable Plastics

Look out for these numbers stated on the product or packaging:

ASTM – American Society for Testing and Materials (USA)

ASTM D6400 – A compostable plastic is defined by the standards association ASTM International (ASTM) as “a plastic that undergoes degradation by biological processes during composting to yield carbon dioxide (CO2), water, inorganic compounds, and biomass at a rate consistent with other known compostable materials and that leaves no visible, distinguishable, or toxic residue.” (i.e. Biodegrade + Disintegrate + Eco-toxicity)

  • ISO – International Organization for Standardization (international)

ISO 17088:2012 – The four following aspects are addressed on compostability :

a) biodegradation;

b) disintegration during composting;

c) negative effects on the composting process and facility;

d) negative effects on the quality of the resulting compost, including the presence of high levels of regulated metals and other harmful components.

For testing these plastics, the rules have prescribed the BIS benchmark. For a compostable plastic, the benchmark is that a minimum 60 percent of the polymer degrades within 45 days.

Certified biodegradable plastics are better than non-biodegradable ones, but they are not the perfect solution. Biodegradable plastic additive provided by Oxygreen plastics is the most cost affordable solution to enhance the biodegradation of your plastic product. Where does the environment stand on your priority list?

Get in touch with us and let’s together make a greener planet.

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