Does biodegradable plastic really exist? Are there some plastics that can breakdown in the compost? Why does everything, even organic food, come wrapped in plastic? Who benefits from packaging?
There are some questions that we at Sinplástico receive every month and they often relate to packaging.
So, we thought that the best thing to do would be to ask our co-founder Javier, whom you will remember from our super post about “fake eco-products”. He is going to tell us the whole truth about those supposed eco-friendly packaging options (and the interested parties behind them).
Let’s get to it…
Does biodegradable plastic really exist?
The truth is, no.
Something biodegradable is something that can breakdown biologically, to the point where it totally decomposes and is taken up again by nature.
A banana, some potato skins – these are biodegradable… but plastic is always going to have synthetic additives that are not going to broken down by nature, because they are not 100% organic.
The problem is, that these additives are chemicals that can leave behind a toxic trail.
In certain cases, like that of the ghost fishing nets, we have seen that it would be better to use materials that break down more quickly and easily, so that we can stop using plastic that hangs around for hundreds of years and that is dangerous for our marine life.
However, the plastics that are sold as biodegradable are not the true solution to the problem of toxic pollution.
In addition, in order to say that something is biodegradable we need to explain under which conditions: in relation to climate, and how many years it will take… Because if we don’t, that means we have too little information to make an informed decision.
And what about compostable plastic?
Here we need to be careful, because they often try to sell us “compostable” plastic, but in reality it can only be broken down in industrial chemical plants, not on our garden compost heap.
We have tried a number of times to compost this type of plastic in our household compost and we are yet to have it break down, as shown in a video by Vivir sin plástico (“Living without plastic” – in English).
In any case, there is also something else we need to consider: Do we really want to be composting plastic that has potentially toxic components to later use on our vegetable garden? Who can guarantee us that there are no microplastics or toxic chemicals in the resulting compost? It’s something to think about.
When it comes to eco products being sold in packaging, can we say they are truly organic and healthy?
It’s clear that if you go to a shop or a supermarket and you buy an organic vegetable packaged in plastic, your purchase is no longer sustainable. If it comes from a local producer who wraps it in plastic, but at the same time is working to protect biodiversity and he/she doesn’t use harmful chemical pesticides and fertilizers …well, perhaps that is different.
The important thing is to know there are other options. Particularly when it comes to organic products, there are many that are overpackaged and that we can find plastic-free without having to try too hard.
It is also true, that there are times (although not many) in which the use of plastic may be justified. For example, a reusable plastic drum for buying bulk detergent is more sustainable because it can last and be reused for years. It is important to see the lifecycle of the container to know whether it is justified.
As consumers, when we are faced with the supermarket or corner store shelves we need to ask ourselves: How can we work out whether a container is sustainable?
We can do so, by asking ourselves a few questions:
- Is this product overpackaged?
Is all that packaging necessary? Are there any other options for buying the same product without any or less packaging?
- Is this packaging potentially dangerous for our health?
Is it in direct contact with the food it contains? For example, a significant number of tin cans contain bisphenol A (BPA).
- What lifecycle does the container have?
Can we reuse it? Can we return it? Is it recyclable? E.g. glass is a better option over plastic because it is reusable and recyclable. Or if we buy something packaged in cardboard or wood, it is compostable. Or even if they sell lentils in a little fabric bag, perhaps I may be able to reuse it…
Now that you mention glass and cardboard, some people are worried about exchanging plastic for paper or glass packaging because they argue that these materials having a greater environmental impact, but is it the same?
This is a difficult question to answer, but there are 2 important issues here:
- On the one hand, there are few studies that take into account how long plastic hangs around out there in the environment as a deciding factor.
What studies generally look at is the energy required to extract, manufacture and transform plastic, glass and paper. It’s true, that manufacturing paper and glass needs a greater amount of energy, however as opposed to plastic, glass for example is 100% recyclable.
In fact, in many other countries there are different recycling bins depending on the colour of the glass, this allows the recycling system to be extremely effective, practically closing the loop.
If we had a packaging collection system, we would have data to know what material lasts longer in our daily lives: plastic or glass.
- On the other hand, there is the effect that plastic has on our health and on the environment, which is huge.
Plastic comes at a price, it is responsible for having an effect on the survival of entire species, potentially causing diseases… Here, we go deeper into this topic about the real cost of plastic, there is a tremendous cost to our health and to the environment that will continue to increase and is not taken into account when we calculate the impact of this material.
So, even though the energy required to make plastic is less, if at a later stage the price we are going to pay is in human lives and irreparable damage to the environment… it can’t really be considered more sustainable.
And of course… what many people don’t know is that behind plastic packaging there is a whole industry that benefits and profits from this waste. Can you tell us a little more about this?
Behind the packaging we see on the shelves there is a big business we don’t even know about.
The truth is, that by wrapping products in plastic the idea is, to indirectly sell more plastic. This happens for a number of reasons:
- Plastic is the perfect marketing tool: it is malleable, it allows you to make different shapes, colours, etc. and it catches your eye and stimulates consumers. From a marketing perspective it is a very useful and practical material. Primarily, because it is very cheap and can be easily personalised. Something that using a glass jar or a product sold individually in bulk is harder to achieve.
- Plastic is also a by-product of petroleum and therefore, it interests the petroleum companies that they get the best return on their investment. If we stop buying plastic, we are stopping the purchase of a lot of petroleum.
- Finally, a large part of the European economy is based on the chemical industry. Big business is made up of large and very powerful companies that manufacture chemicals to make products such as cosmetics and of course plastic. These businesses lobby in support of plastic because they have an invested interest in plastic production.
And now, what about waste management?
It’s the same story. As we generate all this waste, there is a whole economy dedicated to waste management, that a large number of companies have an invested interest in. If we stop producing so much waste, this whole market will collapse.
It’s a false economy, an economy wrapped in a bubble that is based on something that doesn’t support wellbeing. It’s simply a matter of making money and it has some very severe consequences for our environment and on the financial balance of our communities, because our public institutions spend a whole lot of money managing this waste.
In addition, there are companies that produce products wrapped in plastic and at a later stage they then charge for collecting that same plastic packaging.
That means, charging at both ends. You give them money when you buy their products and you give them more money when you throw their products away. That way it suits them down to the ground if we buy and throw away, buy and throw away, buy and throw away…
The consumer always ends up paying because the same people that are contracted to guide us and manage our waste are the ones that have an invested interested in the fact that this waste is generated in the first place.
A total contradiction.
Apart from not generating waste, from buying items in bulk, from buying alternatives that last us a lifetime rather than using single-use products, how can we inform ourselves and take action to avoid using packaging that is not as sustainable as it seems?
I am going to share 4 tips:
- The first, is to use your common sense.
If you tell me that this bottle of soft drink is made of 80% plant-based material, great. However, how does that change things? It doesn’t. It is better to throw away a bottle that is made, at least in part, from plants? It doesn’t give me useful information about how that bottle is going to effect the environment and our health, so common sense tells me that if I have the option to buy a glass bottle or one that is returnable, that’s always going to be the better option.
- Before buying a brand that you are suspicious of, you can always do your research first.
Does the brand offer independent studies about their packaging or do they just offer you marketing flyers? Has this company been reported by NGOs you trust?…
- You can also trust in the work done by specialists in these materials.
The book Contenedor Amarillo S.A. by Alberto Vizcaíno (about the yellow plastic recycling bins) is a great source of information about what is behind plastic waste management. It talks about the topic with handy facts and figures about how we are fed into the trap, it’s a vicious circle.
- Lastly, if you have further questions or doubts that you can’t manage to find answers to, you can always consult a trustworthy blog.
Such as, Carro de combate, Vivir sin plástico or this blog of ours. We often receive questions about this topic that we try to address and resolve with these types of articles. Therefore we invite you to get in contact and ask us any questions you may still have.
Many thanks Javier.
We hope that this blog post has helped you to understand that not everything that is labelled “eco-friendly” really is, and that we have encouraged you to be more aware as a consequence.
Don’t let them pull the wool over your eyes