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Recyclable, compostable, biodegradable — the lowdown on eco-plastics

March 18, 2021By Flora Beverley

It’s Compost Week and Recycling Day – the perfect time to talk about the plethora of types of plastic and newer eco-plastics making their way into the market.

It is estimated that people in the UK use 5m tonnes of plastic every year, around half of which is single-use. Recently, however, there has been a rise in alternative packaging options, from bio plastics, to compostable plastics, to plastic alternatives, such as glass and metal. 

Single use plastics are problematic because they are notoriously difficult to recycle, and because we make so much of it. We create around 300m tonnes of plastic waste each year with 5m to 14m tonnes of that ending up in the ocean. Because of the sheer amount we produce, plastic is everywhere, from the top of Mount Everest, to the Mariana Trench, to our own drinking water

Is plastic recyclable?

Plastic is a whole category of materials, and only a few types (PET and HDPE) are easily recyclable in most areas. Contrary to aluminium, however, which is infinitely recyclable, plastics can only be recycled a limited number of times. Because of this, and the fact that virgin plastics often have to be added to reuse recycled plastics, they’re usually downcycled, limiting their lifespan. But, theoretically, the above types of plastic are recyclable, if only a limited number of times. 

Other types of plastic, such as LDPE (thin film plastics) are extremely difficult to recycle, and in most cases should not be put in curbside recycling, as it can damage recycling plants. Putting these into the recycling bin can do more harm than good, as they can clog up recycling machines, and the people at the plants have to pay to have them removed, further lowering the profitability of recycling. Some film plastics, such as plastic bags, bread packaging, frozen food bags, some crisp packets etc can be recycled at specialist recycling centres. The best thing to do with these (if they are unable to be reused) is to store them up and then take them to large supermarkets for recycling. More and more supermarket chains in the UK provide this, so take a look next time you go!

The alternatives

Needless to say, these are not perfect solutions, with the amount of single use plastic still at a historical high. However, the use of ‘alternative plastics’ has exploded in recent years, with ‘bioplastic’ production set to quadruple between 2016 and 2021. So what are these alternative plastics, and are they better than our current solutions?

There are lots of varieties of alternative plastic, with more being made each day. There are two key labels – bioplastic and compostable – that many put on their packaging as evidence of their ‘greener’ nature. However, the environmental thinktank Green Alliance suggested there was evidence that by using terms such as ‘biodegradable’, customers were more likely to discard items into the environment, making pollution on land and at sea even worse.

Bioplastics are a diverse group of materials, and the term has several meanings. They can be made from plant-based sources such as starch, oils, cellulose etc., but are not necessarily biodegradable. These ‘bio’ building blocks can be used to create non-biodegradable plastics that behave in exactly the same way as conventional plastics – just because ‘bio’ is in the name does not mean it is biodegradable. Coca Cola’s PlantBottle, for example, though partly derived from sugarcane, is chemically identical to hard-to-breakdown PET bottles. So, it can be recycled, but it won’t break down for centuries if placed in compost. Equally, the term bioplastic can refer to plastics created from fossil fuels which are made to be biodegradable. The term is used for a wide range of materials that do not necessarily all behave in the same way – see the graph below (WRAP).

Then we have compostable plastics. Thankfully, there is an industry standard that plastics must meet to be deemed ‘compostable,’ which ensures they can decompose/biodegrade in industrial composting conditions. Not all biodegradable plastics are compostable, but all compostable plastics are biodegradable, in the right conditions. What this does not mean is that they can be placed in household composting – these products must be specifically labelled ‘home compostable’. If placed in the wrong bins, these plastics could do more harm than good. Vegware, for example, must be composted industrially for it to biodegrade. It cannot be recycled, and will not biodegrade in your home compost. If you can’t send it to be industrially composted, it should be placed in your normal landfill bin.

Because of this, many of these alternative plastics are best limited to closed environments where post-use collection is possible, e.g. in a restaurant, university etc. Otherwise, they’re no better (perhaps even worse!) than conventional, recyclable plastic. Any plastic that evades appropriate collection and treatment systems and instead makes its way into the environment has the potential to have long-lasting negative impacts. Jo Ruxton, cofounder of Plastic Oceans, shares that even biodegradable plastics can take years to break down at sea. “They can be mistaken for food and ingested, they can entangle animals. They can do everything that plastic does – they just don’t last as long.”

What are the solutions?

As always, reducing plastic consumption is the first step to solving the problem. If you have less waste, you don’t have to worry about which bin it can go into. Producing more single use alternative plastics will only exacerbate the problem, contributing to our single-use lifestyle and adding to the confusion. See if you can opt for circular schemes, such as Loop, and refillable models. 

Reusing plastics is the next best option. Butter tubs can be useful for storing wires, screws and other miscellaneous goods. Bread bags are great to use instead of new ziplock bags or sandwich bags. Plastic bags can be reused again and again for shopping. Make sure every item has the longest life possible before making its way to your bin. 

Recycle the plastics you can recycle, compost the ones that you can compost and make sure everything else makes its way safely to your bin – do not let it get into the environment! 

Beyond this, it’s important to push companies to create less waste to begin with. If you have a company you love, send them an email to let them know that you’d love to see them move away from single use plastic packaging. Check out the Break Free From Plastic campaign and Plastic Patrol, who are working to hold brands accountable for the waste they produce. Use your voice and your vote to influence governments. 

There is a lot we can do individually to enforce change, both at home and country-wide, and it starts with individual action. Knowledge is power, so share this article with others so that together we can have a profound impact on the environment around us.