At this point, we all know plastic is bad for the environment. Micro-beads in hygiene products, micro-plastics infecting the entire planet, plastics that don’t break down, plastic straws, single-use plastics… I could go on. Regular plastic does not decompose but rather, breaks down into micro-plastics and takes twenty to five hundred years to do so. Yet we still use it.
Ideally, the solution to the plastic crisis is to reduce our use to zero. No plastic packaging. No plastic waste. But this leaves the issue of hygiene. Here is where I will turn your attention to the medical industry which, as stated in my last article, produces a lot of plastic waste with gloves, masks, protective materials, etc. This is where we introduce biodegradable and compostable plastic. Both are very similar but very different.
Biodegradable plastic consists of any material that breaks down in any environment at a much faster rate than regular plastic. It can sometimes be made from plant-based materials such as corn oil or starch. While the plastic takes three to six months to break down, it can leave residue toxic micro-plastic waste. These toxic components affect the entire environment and cause harm.
Compostable plastic consists of 100% organic materials that break down into the environment if composted. Compostable plastic causes zero harm to the environment if they are composted, not discarded into regular rubbish. In the right environment, it can take as little as a few months to as long as a few years to decompose fully. Yet still, it is much quicker than regular plastic and leaves no toxic waste; only healthy nutrients to enrich soil. Even if you don’t have a compost bin, I would recommend trying to use compostable plastic bags for your bins at least. The prices barely vary between regular or compostable plastic liners.
As a uni student, most of you may live in student accommodation which makes it really difficult to implement a composting system (especially knowing that for how much our university loves to preach sustainability, the recycling and rubbish goes into the same truck each week). But the good news is biodegradable plastic might be the next thing Australia bans. Fingers crossed for humanity still!
The issue with compostable plastic and even biodegradable plastic (beside residue toxic waste) is the greenhouse gas emissions emitted in the process of growing the raw materials that make up these plastics. Corn oil, starch, sugarcane, wood, leaves, plant pulp and more, are all materials that can be used to make compostable plastic. But it takes energy to farm these materials and can result in very high carbon emissions.
Hence why the real solution will always be: no plastic.
Hi, I’m Sami Peters and I am the Environment and Global Change Reporter for Opus. I study a Bachelor of Arts with a major in English and Writing. I love reading, writing, dancing, and the beach. I have a lot of passions but to combine two of my favourites: the environment and writing… that’s the dream.