Is Compostable Plastic Good or Evil?
The evils of plastic are easy to talk about, but actually making changes to use less plastic is extremely difficult. Plastic is ubiquitous and plastic products often cost less. Some items, like your desktop printer, cable modem, and a million other daily use items only come with a plastic option. So, when I started seeing plastic storage bags, disposable utensils, plates, cups, and even plastic garbage bags labeled as compostable and biodegradable, I felt like the breakthrough had happened. The concept make me giddy, and I was willing to spend more money to help the earth. Then one day I was looking at one of the bags labeled compostable and it occurred to me that I wasn’t comfortable putting this “plastic like” item into my own compost bin. Weird chemicals came to mind. So, I started researching.
Compostable plastics are often called bioplastics. They contain chemical compounds “derived from or synthesized by microbes such as bacteria or by genetically modified plants." (https://www.britannica.com/technology/bioplastic). The type of bioplastic (compostable plastic) made from plants like corn or sugarcane is often referred to as PLA plastic. It is often used in food packaging. PHS is the type of bioplastic made from microorganisms. It is typically used in the medical field for items like sutures and cardiovascular patches.
The real benefit from bioplastic or compostable plastic would come from a reduction in carbon and less damage to the environment. The idea is that bioplastic will contribute less carbon to the atmosphere by returning the same carbon absorbed by the plants while growing that was used to make the plastic. This is also based on the assumption that the bioplastic degrades. This is where things get tricky. Depending on the type of bioplastic, it does not just degrade in any environment. Industrial type, high heat composting is necessary for it to break down in a reasonable time frame. In the absence of intense heat, compostable plastic breaks down into tiny pieces, and in the same fashion as traditional plastic, lasts for decades and presents a danger to marine life and the environment. Additionally, there is also the question of using land that is diverted away from food production to grow crops to make bioplastics. This, of course involves soil degradation, the use of dangerous pesticides, and the run off of fertilizers as well. (https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2018/11/are-bioplastics-made-from-plants-better-for-environment-ocean-plastic/#close)
So, is bioplastic evil? You will have to make that decision on your own. I like to take a pragmatic approach. I think we should all avoid any type of plastic or bioplastic as much as possible. Pay attention when you shop and use reusable produce bags and shopping bags. Support brands that are using earth friendly forms of packaging. Use aluminum foil whenever possible rather than plastic wrap, and if do have to purchase something packaged in plastic, make an honest effort to recycle or find a way to safely reuse the container. I applaud the effort of bioplastic and the desire to find another alternative to traditional plastic. I think this is a field that will continue to be explored and I look forward to the amazing ideas of scientists and entrepreneurs everywhere. I think if you wants to use bioplastic, you should check with your local government or check recycling companies in your area to see if there is a high heat compost facility in your area that accepts bioplastic or another responsible way for you to dispose of it. Otherwise, it may be just as damaging as the alternative you are spending more to avoid.
I found this list of facilities in the United States that compost bioplastic. I don’t know if it is exhaustive.
The EPA also has a page that addresses some FAQs about plastic recycling and bioplastic: