Bioplastics explained

Biodegradable, re-useable, compostable, recyclable, bio-plastics, green plastics… it’s all such a blur isn’t it? 

So many products are being brought to market and promoted as biodegradable these days. The humble toothbrush is a prime example. Approximately 3.5 billion toothbrushes are sold worldwide every year. Dentists tell us to change our toothbrushes every 3 months — and even if this isn’t top of your priorities like me and you remember every 4 or 5 months, that is still 4 bits of rigid plastic being thrown away by one individual each year. And they all have to go somewhere, and that somewhere is usually landfill.

The solution? Buy a biodegradable one. Or a bio-plastic one… Or a composting one…? Except is this really the best thing to do? Sure I agree it is better than an oil-based fossil fuel plastic sitting in a landfill site for hundreds of years, but what is really the best solution?

I have recently worked with a dentist who is developing her own range of dental tools. The environmental impact of these tools was at the forefront of our project, until we approached the factories and dug deeper into the minefield that is biodegradability. I spent a long time researching the pros and cons of bio plastics, contacting suppliers and manufacturers. 

And guess what? It turns out that products that some companies claim to be biodegradable actually aren’t all they promise to be. Now I am not naming names or whistle blowing, that’s not my goal here. But I do want people to think carefully before they see the word biodegradeable and assume that is it – problem solved. 

The plastic manufacturers I spoke to are open and honest that their materials don’t degrade in landfill. I have a score of data sheets on my computer from manufacturers that list the exact conditions some ‘biodegradable’ plastics need in order to degrade. And this begs the question; if a product claims to be biodegradable but in order to degrade it actually needs to be sent to a purposely built industrial biodegrading factory, is this really any better for the environment?

Surely if a product is biodegradable we can chuck it into our home composting bin in the garden and it will turn into lovely rich compost for the roses or the veg patch? Spoiler alert; No. 

This is compostable, not biodegradable. Biodegradable means it just breaks down into natural elements, not that it will benefit the environment in the way something compostable might do, and this is assuming  it breaks down entirely.

For a start, who actually knows to send ‘biodegradable plastic’ products to specialised  industrial decomposing centres? Where are they in the UK? What do we chuck our discarded biodegradable plastic items into to get them there? The answer is; people don’t know this. Yet. So they end up being thrown into the general waste bin and end up in a landfill where they won’t degrade fully, if at all, just like their oil based predecessor.

I recently enrolled my family home with a local milkman. He delivers milk once a week. We now own our own glass milk bottles. We wash them, dry them and leave them out once a week for the milk man to refill from his milk van. They are reuseable.

This spurred me to n speak to several factories both in the UK and in Europe about the scope of reusability, and as a result this is now the direction my current project is taking. Every plastic injection moulding factory I spoke to was more than happy to take in our used products at the end of their life cycle, where they could be ground up, re-melted and turned into new products. 

This means, not only is the final product 100 per cent recyclable, it is also recycled. A closed loop system. It is better for the environment as no plastic ends up in landfill, and fewer raw materials are being used, which means less use of fossil fuels and lower carbon emissions.

It is easy to incentivise reusability too, with discounts on future products being offered after old ones are returned. In the case of a toothbrush, the consumer buys a toothbrush, uses said product for a few months, sends it back to the supplier to a pre-paid postage address in original packaging where it can be cleaned, ground down, and re moulded into a new product. The consumer then gets a discount on a new item.

So don’t just assume that  ‘biodegradable’ is the route to go down when designing a product. It might not have the green credentials you’d expect. Explore exactly what happens to the item when it ends its life, and if the results don’t stack up then explore other options to make it recyclable. Consider your choices carefully.