Promoting sustainability in the plastics industry requires an understanding of compost, soil, good ole’ carbon, and biodegradable materials. The plastics industry has heard the cry for help from Mother Earth. We know that we need to be doing all we can to help create materials that will not harm the life cycle of plants and animals. In environmental science sustainability is defined as, “the quality of not being harmful to the environment or depleting natural resources, and thereby supporting the long-term ecological balance. So, do bioplastics really help the environment? What can the plastics industry do to promote sustainability?
What Is the Manufacturing Industry Doing to Promote Sustainability?
In order to manufacture products, we must use energy. In using this energy, the least we can do is return nutrients to the earth and not cause more harm than necessary. Plastic pollution stems from two main issues:
- Responsibility of the Consumer
- Responsibility of the Manufacturer
We spoke last week about the responsibility of the consumer. This responsibility still exists in the presence of biodegradable plastics. Compost is not as useful if it still ends up in the dump. Additionally, depending on the way the plastic breaks down or decomposes it might still take a lot of time. In nature, this extra time will negatively impact plant and animal life. This is why consumer responsibility does not go away as plastic technology advances. However, as manufacturers and engineers we can do our best to give you the absolute best chance at helping our environment.
Plastic Industry’s Response to Environmental Depletion
Lately this conversation in the plastics industry has been heavily centered around sustainability and bioplastics. “Bioplastics” encompasses a few different materials. PLA or other starch based plastics often are used; along with PHA which is often used for single-use medical industry needs.
Are Compostable Plastics Eco-Friendly?
- Biodegradable: According to the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) biodegradables are anything that undergoes degradation resulting from the action of naturally occurring microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi, and algae.1
- Compostable: The ASTM defines compostables as anything that undergoes degradation by biological processes during composting to yield CO2, water, inorganic compounds and biomass at a rate consistent with other compostable materials and leaves no visible, distinguishable or toxic residue.1
When we look at the definitions closely, the difference becomes clearer. While both break down organically, compostable materials leave no toxic residue.
Compostable plastics are becoming increasingly popular, especially for single-use items like plastic packaging. Bioplastic technology is amazing. We are creating compostable plastic products that you could simply throw into your compost pile and return to the earth. Reducing our carbon footprint through technology is an honorable goal.
Do Bioplastics Really Help the Environment?
The goal of bioplastics is progressive and wonderful. However, educated sustainability experts will advise you of a few major issues with compostable plastics.
- There are two categories of compostables: home and industrial. Home compostables will decompose naturally in your garden or compost bin under the right conditions. However, there are plastics that need to be composted at an industrial facility. Many cities lack the resources to collect and compost these materials. Additionally, the virtually non-existent labeling system for compostable products further confuses consumers. Thus, a lot of compostable plastic still ends up in landfills where it produces excess methane gas and doesn’t replenish the earth
- Compostable materials don’t overwrite human responsibility. Much like the lackluster recycling efforts discussed in prior blogs, a general concern is that people will not take advantage of compostable plastics in the way they ought to. Companies will feel like they did their “ecological duty” by purchasing compostable plastic forks, but then fail to provide their consumers with the proper disposal units.
- Additionally, the conversation that mostly surrounds PLA is that the pollution and land used to produce the corn for making PLA is actually more harmful to the environment than it is beneficial. However, this is dependent on whether PLA actually makes it to the industrial composting it is designed to undergo. And lastly, completely ignores that the majority of corn production is for feeding livestock; a much worse use of non renewable resources. So maybe we ought to reduce our meat consumption before we decide against the use of PLA.
BioPlastic’s Effect on Sustainability is Largely Up to Us!
Do bioplastics really help the environment? The answer is still being defined. As with many things in life, bioplastics have their pros and their cons. While their decomposition provides the solution to many plastic pollution problems, it still relies on human responsibility and educated decision making. Bioplastics are an incredible integration of technology and progress in the plastics industry. Now it is simply our duty to inform the public on how to properly use, reuse, and dispose of them to really make the whole cycle worthwhile. Together we can take care of our planet AND continue to provide customers with necessary manufactured goods.