Biodegradable plastics: are they better for the environment?

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Biodegradable plastics: are they better for the environment?

The claim biodegradable is often associated with environmentally friendly products. What exactly does this mean? I would define it as being able to be broken down by natural processes, into more basic components. Products are usually broken down by bacteria, fungi or other simple organisms. By this definition, most chemicals are biodegradable; the only thing differing would be the amount of time it takes to break down.

First Known Use of biodegradable is in 1959. However, “biodegradable” products can vary greatly in how long they take to break down. A piece of bread will break down rather quickly, may require only a couple of weeks , whereas a piece of plastic will take decades and beyond. Biodegradable waste can be commonly found in municipal solid waste (sometimes called biodegradable municipal waste, or BMW) as green wastefood wastepaper waste, and biodegradable plastics.


What are biodegradable plastic

Biodegradable plastics are plastics that can be broken down by microorganisms (bacteria or fungi) into water, carbon dioxide (CO2) and some bio-material. It is important to note that biodegradable plastics are not necessarily made from bio-material (i.e. plants). Several biodegradable plastics are made from oil in the same way as conventional plastics. If you’re in the habit of reading what supermarkets print on their plastic bags, you may have noticed a lot of environmentally friendly statements appearing over the last few years. Some stores now use what are described as photodegradableoxydegradable, or just biodegradable bags (in practice, whatever they’re called, it often means the same thing). As the name suggests, these biodegradable plastics contain additives that cause them to decay more rapidly in the presence of light and oxygen (moisture and heat help too). Unlike bioplastics, biodegradable plastics are made of normal (petrochemical) plastics and don’t always break down into harmless substances: sometimes they leave behind a toxic residue and that makes them generally (but not always) unsuitable for composting.


So what are biodegradable plastics good for?

In principle plastics are valued for their ability to make strong, durable products (for example in food storage, transport, building and construction).  Biodegradability should therefore be regarded as  an additional functionality when the application demands a cheap way to dispose of the item after it has fulfilled its job (e.g. for packaging, protect food and keep it fresh). Biodegradability is a material property that depends much on the circumstances of the biological environment (human body differs from soil). Given that this is the case, it could be said that making a product such as a plastic bag compostable does not make much sense because this biodegradability performance will not resolve the litter issue (different conditions in the compost and on soil).

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Examples of useful biodegradable products are:

  • Food packaging – packaging that can be composted together with its contents when the product is past its sell-by date or spoiled
  • Agriculture – plastic sheeting that can be ploughed-into biodegradable mulch and seed films
  • Medical – absorbable sutures; micro-devices containing medicine, which break down inside the body

The Benefit of Biodegradable Plastic :

  • Biodegradable plastics take less time to break down
  • Biodegradable plastics are renewable
  • Biodegradable plastics are good for the environment
  • Biodegradable plastics require less energy to produce
  • Biodrgradable plastics are easier to recycle
  • Biodegradable plastics are not toxic
  • Biodegradable plastics reduce dependence on foreign oil
  • Carbon Emission Reduction
  • Consumes Less Energy
  • Less Landfill Area Needed
  • Reduced Demand for Fossil Fuels
  • Reduced Volume of Municipal Waste

To conclude, it is a mistake to focus on finding ways to make products easier to throw away in the name of helping the environment. Biodegradable plastics are exciting and useful materials, but they should only be used when they have a concrete benefit for a specific product. The best way to help save the planet is to save energy and improve ways of recycling and recovering all plastics.

International Association of Students in Agricultural and Related Sciences (IAAS) is the World Biggest Student Association in The Field of Agriculture and Related Sciences. IAAS was founded in 1957 and started with only 8 member countries.For the last 60 years, IAAS has grown into a big organization with 53 member countries and more than 10,000 active members. IAAS Indonesia was found by Mr. Arif Satria on December 29th 1992. By the year of 2020, IAAS Indonesia has 11 Local Committees across the country with more than 1200 active members.

1 Comment

  1. ganapathiram says:

    i am ganapathi from India i am manufacturing paper cup raw material and non woven fabric we want to change bio plastic

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