A recent BBC article discussed the merits of both biodegradable and compostable plastics in addressing our throwaway culture. Both the UK and Canada are set to ban single-use plastics in the next two years and alternatives that will not accumulate in landfill or the environment need to be found and established, fast.
With our existing infrastructure, a lot of currently available alternatives to petroleum based plastics are simply replacing one form of plastic waste with another. This is demonstrated within compostable packaging standards – which say that industrial scale composting conditions must be able to break-down the material over 12 weeks leaving pieces no bigger than 2mm. Industrial compositing conditions are far more forcing than household waste, boosting the need for collection schemes to enable such changes. If the plastics don’t make it to the correct conditions then they may simply break down into smaller pieces that are not “composted” and cause more problems than the original.
Its important to remember however that, as with chemical recycling, biodegradables and compostables have their place. The two are distinctly different, and would therefore need differing standards in their widespread use. These materials can particularly play a part in invisible waste streams, such as adhesives and plastic films. These receive less attention due to their difficulty to recycle and relatively smaller size but are a large contributor to our plastic waste problem.