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Science of Recycling Series: Biodegradable Plastic Overview

Plastics are great. Why? Because they are recyclable. So why are plastics such an issue then? Because 56% of our plastic doesn’t make it to a recycling plant. Therefore, biodegradable plastics are needed to mitigate the end-of-life effects of rouge plastic.

What does ‘biodegradable’ mean though? It generally means that nature will be able to degrade the plastic into organic compounds. All plastic can be called biodegradable, but petroleum-based plastics can take 1000 years to degrade, whereas biodegradable plastic can take 6 months.

What the plastics degrade into, is highly important. True biodegradable plastics, such as PLA, will degrade to CO2, water and salts; however, improper biodegradable plastics will degrade into micro-plastics – creating an even worse problem. One of these improper biodegradable plastics is Oxo-biodegradable plastic, which, the majority of evidence shows that this degrades into microplastic, yet this is one of the most popular ‘biodegradable’ plastics in SA at the moment.

So then how do you identify the correct biodegradable plastic to demand? It’s not easy because we don’t have standardized labelling yet. But it will come - the global bioplastics market share is expected to grow to 40% by 2030 so it looks like the change is inevitable.

In South Africa, however, it may take a longer time because the plastics industry is naturally pushing back very hard. After doing research for this issue, its interesting to see how much of general information about biodegradable plastic is written by the plastics industry...

Of course, not all plastic is suitable to be replaced by biodegradable plastic – I’m not sure if I want a bucket to degrade while I am using it - but there is no doubt that biodegradable plastic could help solve the one-time-use plastics issue.

There are still a lot of unknowns about biodegradable plastic, but at least we are starting to ask for spoons which last 6 months rather than 1000 years.

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