We consider ourselves experts in polythene packaging. Still – just like everyone else – we constantly find ourselves learning more about our specialism. And the more we learn, the more we become convinced that we, the wider public that is, have been hoodwinked.
Plastic is a great enemy among environmentalists. And we fully agree that plastic has been abused and poorly managed. We don’t suggest for a second that plastic pollution should be ignored – and we are always working towards better management of pre-consumer, post-consumer and end-of-life plastic packaging.
But here’s the thing; right now in the UK, it’s hot. Really, really hot. Climate change is an obvious reality to us now. Water is becoming more scarce, year on year. Many people, scientists included, think that we’re past the point where we can stop it.
If we need a glimpse of our worst case scenario future, we only have to look to the sky. Venus, our neighbouring planet, is the most similar to our own in terms of size and composition. Billions of years ago, it was thought to be very similar to our own world; there was water, and maybe even life at one point. But that all changed when something terrible happened.
We know for certain that Venus was completely resurfaced around 700 million years ago – because there are no craters older than that on the surface. During that event, CO2 was released into the planet’s sky on a massive scale, causing unstoppable, irreversible global warming.
The planet’s water boiled off, the carbon cycle stopped, and Venus died.
Today, Venus is the hottest planet in the solar system. It has a global temperature of about 475ºC and a surface pressure 95 times higher than the Earth’s. It is so inhospitable that even the probes sent to explore it have been destroyed within minutes of landing – all because of a runaway greenhouse effect. This is a very real possibility for the future of planet Earth.
But how does biodegradable plastic fit in with all of this?
Because, while well-meaning, those who support plastic alternatives are inadvertently driving towards this potential future at an accelerated rate.
The problems with biodegradable plastic
Biodegradable, compostable, and other “dream” plastics are massively power and water-intensive; not only to manufacture, but also to dispose of.
First, let’s address the biggest problem with biodegradable plastic bags. They take just as long to decompose as normal plastic – up to 1,000 years in landfill – and compostable plastic won’t break down in your garden compost heap. Worse still, neither biodegradable or compostable plastics can be recycled. Once they’re no longer reusable, they have to be disposed of.
Compostable plastic bags need to be broken down in a special, industrial composter – which generates enormous temperatures, powered by greenhouse gas-emitting power supplies. They’re not going to rot away like banana skins or potato peelings. Heavy processing has transformed their organic starter materials into plastic.
Remember, we’re only talking about the end-of-life disposal here – we haven’t even discussed manufacturing yet. To make plastic with biodegradable and compostable content, you need biomass, usually sourced from sugarcane or corn. Growing these crops is hugely water intensive, and is difficult to justify in times of drought. To make space for these crops, large areas have to be cleared of the planet’s natural carbon sinks; tress.
Bioplastics are, as far as we can tell, a scam. Their production actively harms the environment, and their disposal and breakdown is either the same as normal polythene bags, or requires more carbon to break down. They use more precious water to make, and destroy carbon storing forests to grow.
This still isn’t the worst bit.
Are consumers being scammed with so-called green packaging?
You’ve probably noticed a big shift to paper packaging in recent years. Paper bags are exempt from the plastic bag levy in shops, and plastic drinking straws have been largely replaced by single-use paper straws. Even major electronics firms have moved over to paper and card packaging, to much applause.
What nobody talks about, however, is just how awful paper packaging is for the environment. Okay, sure – forests can be regrown and controlled carefully, in a sustainable way. But making paper is staggeringly toxic, and the damage paper mills cause to waterways and life (human or otherwise) is unimaginable.
In a previous post, we discussed cardboard versus plastic packaging. Making paper (the source material for cardboard) is massively water-intensive – and so, paper mills are located on bodies of freshwater. The runoff from making paper is, even after filtering and processing, dangerously toxic.
Lead, bleaching agents, and poisonous chemicals are routinely discharged into waterways by paper mills – and regardless of how sustainable the forests that supply them are, the energy required to produce paper is far higher than the carbon offset the forest can possibly provide.
And after all of this, the paper is almost always used just once. Unlike a plastic bag, it’s too weak to withstand multiple uses. Plus, the added weight and size of paper packaging make it less efficient to transport, further adding to carbon emissions.
We are constantly looking for this “silver bullet” packaging solution that is light, strong, reusable, recyclable, up-cyclable – but we already have it: it’s plastic.
What we lack is a proper recycling infrastructure; standardisation, incentives to recycle, and industrial and societal input to work on making it happen.
Is recycled polythene better?
It’s a start. It uses less energy to make, produces far less waste, and even avoids businesses having to pay PPT – which is, in small part, an incentive to use more recycled materials.
Plastic disposal has its problems. It doesn’t belong in the sea, or in waterways – or in our bloodstreams.
But in the real environmental fight against climate change, it is our ally. We’ll need it to win. It is strong and light, reusable, recyclable – it is so much better on carbon emissions than paper, card, or glass. And in the end, when it has been all it can be, it can be melted down into bricks and construction materials that can outlast the rest of the building.
Biodegradable plastic cannot do any of that. It’s just another single-use plastic, misleadingly portrayed as green – simply because it is made with plant matter. We know the real story behind it, and now that you do too, hopefully you’ll understand why we don’t sell biodegradable polythene bags.
Do the world a favour – choose recycled polythene bags
Order polythene bags from NPF Packaging. We’ll provide you with recycled polythene bags made to your exact specifications, with custom blends and additives available. Get a quote now, or call us on 01773 820415 to get started.