We all know that plastic is not only a popular, versatile product in today’s world, but that it also has no place in nature and is a big cause of pollution, clogging our rivers and oceans, choking birds and fish and generally hurting our environment. With this knowledge, there has been strong public pressure for consumers and businesses to look to plastic alternatives that are environmentally friendly, including compostable plastic and bioplastics. While these are both touted as sustainable alternatives, the realty is they are not.
The 3 most commonly used alternatives to plastic are:
- Biodegradable Plastics
- Recycled Plastics
Biodegradable plastics, often referred to as photodegradable or oxydegradable, are plastics that can be decomposed by the action of living organisms, most commonly, bacteria. Biodegradable plastics are made of petrochemical plastics, which typically break down into harmful substances that are not suitable for composting. These can leave behind a toxic residue as well.
Recycled plastics are plastic made from recycled plastic materials. In other words, products that are recycled into something new. While this is a great alternative to keeping a product out of the landfill, there are still resources that go into the process of collecting and recycling an item.
Bioplastics are plastics derived from natural materials, such as corn starch and sugar cane. PLAs, made from polylactic acid, also known as polylactide, are now often used to make food containers. While bioplastics are sometimes compostable, often times they require high temperatures in industrial scale and will therefore not break down in conventional landfills.
- When biodegradable plastics decompose, they produce methane gas, which adds to the problem of global warming.
- Some versions of PLA products are made from genetically modified corn, which many deem are bad for the environment. This corn is also produced on land that could be used to grow food for the world, instead of plastic.
- Many biodegradable plastics and bioplastics require high temperatures or UV light to decompose, which takes many years and often leaves behind toxic residue and micro-plastics.
- Growing crops to make bioplastics uses environmental resources such as water and fuel, and produces both greenhouse emissions and water pollution from fertilizer run-off.
- PLA’s cannot be easily recycled and cannot be combined with true plastics in a residential recycling bin.
- No bioplastic or biodegradable plastic is truly compostable.
The image above was posted on www.myplasticfreelife.com and shows a PLA product made from potato starch that has been through a commercial compost operation in San Francisco (60-90 days) with no signs of decomposing. They also featured a wheat based product with the same outcome.
A few companies came up with edible disposable cutlery, which is a neat idea for specialty caterings. Considering the massive amount needed to supply the daily needs of the food service industry it would not be a feasible solution to replace plastic disposable cutlery with them, since it had the same downsides like PLAs; 1. they are using food that could help reduce the world hunger and 2. unless they are made from truly organic ingredients their environmental impact produces more harm than good.
Is There a Better Compostable Option?
Luckily, bioplastics and biodegradable plastics are not your only alternative to plastic. Wood is a far better choice than bioplastics could ever be. Here are just a few reasons why:
- They are truly sustainable. Manufactured from fast-growing trees, such as birch, wooden utensils are 100 percent renewable. And it doesn’t take as long as you might think to regrow the supply; some strains of birch trees mature in as few as 12 years. It is a common misunderstanding that wood products harm tree populations. Wood is one of the most sustainable materials that can be used. It absorbs CO2 while it is growing and creates habitats for wildlife. It is important though to only use raw materials from responsibly managed forests like Foodstiks does.
- Wood cutlery is also 100% natural. No chemicals are used in the manufacturing process, causing no chemical impact to the environment.
- Wood utensils are fully compostable and decompose in about 90 days. And more importantly, they can be tossed into a home or backyard compost bin or pile. They don’t need an industrial facility or special process to break down properly like PLA utensils do.
- When used in home compost, wood cutlery will help create nutrient-rich soil that can be used to fertilize and grow other plants. You’ll never have to worry about plastic bits in your compost.
Wood Utensils Are the Answer
Just because bioplastic utensils are touted (and even certified!) as being compostable, that does not mean that there is no environmental impact created by these products. It’s clear that the impact caused is, in fact, quite significant. Yet, throughout the entire life cycle of wood utensils, there are far fewer environmental repercussions than what can be said for bioplastic utensils.
Until other products are developed wood cutlery is the only sustainable alternative to plastic disposables.