Myths & truths about biodegradable products


With the rise of consumer demand for more sustainable products, there has been a rise in the assortment and the number of businesses with a core focus on being eco-friendly.

Products are labeled as „eco-friendly“, „fully biodegradable“, „compostable“, „95% sustainable raw materials“, „plant-based“, „70% recycled“ and many more. Attaching such properties to the products gives them great additional value. Regardless of the wording, the nature of the product is what gives the labels content.

The excessive use of green-labels has created a situation in which they are often used carelessly or intentionally for greenwashing purposes.

Greenwashing is the process of providing misleading information to deceive consumers into believing that a company’s products are more environmentally sound. It creates deception and confusion and highlights the importance of understanding the ‘reality behind the curtains’ in order to be aware while making choices.

Biodegradation is a process, during which the material is decomposed into smaller particles and eventually to substances found in nature: water, carbon dioxide, and biomass, as a result of the work of microorganisms. Regardless of the extensive use and misuse of the word, it is often not informative. It does not explain, in which conditions, time and to what extent the material degrades. Theoretically, all materials biodegrade, but it is useful only in reasonable conditions and time. [1][2] A material only degrading:
 - In industrial conditions
 - After 200 years
 - Into microplastics
is not helpful for global waste pollution.

Composting is the process of accelerated biodegradation in favored conditions. It is nature’s way of recycling: organic materials are turned into compost. To further accelerate composting, many industrial technologies can be applied. The main parameters affecting the speed of composting are temperature, acidity of the environment, humidity and oxygen transfer, it is also important to have microorganisms present. For fast, aerobic composting, the temperature of 43 – 66 degrees, 40 – 60% humidity, the oxygen concentration of at least 5% and a pH of 5.5 – 9 is needed. [2][3] Such conditions need to be applied in case of compostable single-use tableware, in which case the label compostable may make it seem as they degrade during home composting as well. In an ecosystem where compostable waste is effectively separated and collected, (in a location where they have the ability to reach and uphold such conditions) it is highly commendable. The only downside is the industrial process has high electricity demand, moving the problem from waste to power use. The situation in Estonia as well as in the world generally, a lack of such infrastructure can be seen, undoing the good impact of compostable commodities.

Biological sources are critically important to use in order to reach the full use of renewables and carbon neutrality. It is sustainable to use wood, reed, palm leaves and such raw materials for commodities production. All the widely applied plastics such as PE, PET, PUR can be made fully plant-based. Such plastics have a mostly lower impact on the environment, than oil-based plastics. It is often believed the plant origin also ensures the biodegradability. Yet the degrading properties and lifetime of plastics depend only on its chemical structure, not origin. [4] Therefore a PLA plastic made of fully natural lactic acid can have the same degradation properties as oil-based PE.

While making the environmentally-minded choices it is important to consider the whole life-cycle of the product: it’s origin, production, life-cycle and disposal. None of the mentioned is of higher priority than the others: it is necessary to find the best combination.

For the customers of such products, it is important to be aware of the properties linked to the product purchased; i.e. when buying a biodegradable plastic it is relevant to assess, how and in which time the product degrades in nature.

With compostable products, is hard to know if it will reach the desired facility, as alternatively it could be incinerated or put into landfill, where it acts as a
regular oil-based plastic.

Our #Suckõrs reed drinking straws are made of pure reed, without using synthetic additives. Although the natural Suckõrs straws are durable and reusable, until cracks and damages appear, they are completely biodegradable in every environment in the nature.

 

Sources:

1. European Commission, Directorate-General for Environment, REPORT FROM THE COMMISSION TO THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND THE COUNCIL on the impact of the use of oxo-degradable plastic, including oxo-degradable plastic carrier bags, on the environment, Document 52018DC0035. Used 01.11.2018
2. Rudnik, E. Compostable Polymer Materials. (Elsevier Science, 2008)
3. Chukwudi O. et al. “Composting technology in waste stabilization: On the methods, challenges and future prospects.”, JOURNAL OF ENVIRONMENTAL MANAGEMENT, 190, 140-157, (2017)
4. Reddy, M. et al. “Biobased plastics and bionanocomposites: Current status and future opportunities.” PROGRESS IN POLYMER SCIENCE, 38, 1653-1689, (2013)