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Eco-friendly Plastic: Biodegradable, Recycled or Compostable?

It may seem a bit rich of us to be talking about plastic pollution, considering a large part of our business is plastic packaging. But there’s no denying it: the world has a massive plastic problem. And we have to try to make it better.

We know for a fact that, if managed correctly, plastic packaging can still be useful, cost-effective and far less harmful to the planet. It’s going to take some education and ingenuity – starting with knowing what the current eco-friendly plastic solutions really mean for the environment.

And you might be surprised by what you learn here today.

Shallow focus, plastic bottles on a beach. Dark clouds loom as passersby walk among the plastic and debris

The Plastic Problem

By now, everyone’s seen the infamous photographs of animals stuck in plastic packaging, of turtles eating plastic bags mistaken for food, and junk floating around in the sea.

And while this all looks really bad, it’s only the beginning of the plastic problem. The plastic floating in oceans, littering beaches and travelling along waterways will inevitably break down – and exposure to seawater and sunlight is now shown to accelerate this process. This means that, diluted into the water we drink and get our food from, there are microplastics and nanoplastics.

Microplastics are bits of any type of plastic smaller than 5mm. Nanoplastics are microscopically small particles. These can easily be ingested by humans or wildlife – which is worrying, especially when the environmental health implications of this are still largely unknown.

Initial findings show that microplastics are all around us – in our food, water and air – and that they could be toxic in the short-term. Long-term, we still don’t know what this will do to us and the animals we share the world with; but it’s not likely to be good.

So, how do we fix it? The answers may have been with us all along; we just aren’t doing it right yet.

Eco-friendly plastic solutions: which one’s right?

We now have composable, biodegradable plastics being marketed that claim to be better for the environment, because they are made from plant-based sources which can be broken down by bacteria after use. This is a little bit of a white lie – and the process of making these plastics is far from eco-friendly, when you investigate it.

Bioplastics: Pros and Cons

Pros – bioplastics are made from plant-based oils, using crops like corn, which makes them a never-ending substitute for depleting oil reserves. Plus, they can be used as a carbon offsetting tool; taking CO2 out of the air and storing it in the plants as they grow. In the right conditions (more on that later), they break down into other, natural components – including a source of biogas.

Now for the cons: growing the plants in sufficient quantities isn’t gentle on the environment. They need pesticides and fertilisers, which pollute and harm biodiversity. Manufacturing the bioplastic also requires lots of industrial processing and energy, and chemical additives to make it work properly.

On balance, any reduction in carbon emissions is released in the processing later down the line, and the reduced environmental impact from oil drilling is offset by the need to destroy habitats for plantations. Then, there’s the massive quantities of fresh water needed to grow the crops, which would normally be used as food.

And here’s the kicker: after the bioplastic is used, an industrial composting machine is needed. Bioplastic has to be heated up for bacteria to break it down, in a highly controlled environment. This process produces gas emissions, which can be used for energy production – but also pollutes. Without industrial composting, bioplastics break down in exactly the same way as normal plastics do in landfill or water – as microplastics that linger for decades or centuries.

Biodegradable Vs Recycled Plastic

What about good old fashioned recycling? Well, recycled polythene is one of our most sought-after packaging solutions, because it minimises environmental impact. Here’s how:

So-called virgin plastics are made from raw material. They’re demanded for some uses, like medical equipment packaging and food grade poly bags to eliminate contamination risks, so their production is unavoidable – but this “fresh” polythene can be recycled after use.

It can be supplied at a lower cost and made with reduced energy when compared to virgin plastics. The environmental impact is lower than bioplastic manufacture and post-life processing, because the material already exists; it just needs sorting, cleaning, shredding and reforming into pellets – and can it be recycled again afterwards.

Okay – it’s not quite that simple! But pound for pound, recycling is the most eco-friendly plastic solution we have right now.

The biggest issue and barrier to success is getting industry and consumers on board with recycling. It’s still hard to govern and control – which is why so much plastic is in landfill and waterways, and why there’s such an abundance of the stuff.

And, plastic can only be reused a certain number of times before the quality degrades. But at this point, it’s used to make clothing or furniture, or non-consumable items. It can also be incinerated for energy production – which is dirty, but still better than other energy sources like coal or oil.

So, while by no means perfect, recycling (and eventually repurposing) plastic is still a viable solution. Even so, what are the alternatives – and what does the future hold?

Why we still need plastic

Can’t we just use glass and paper, like the old days? Well, we can – but glass is heavy, which increases its carbon footprint when transported. Paper and card can be recycled (and are sometimes biodegradable) – but can only be recycled so many times before the fibres turn to mush.

The fact is, we still need plastic. It’s clean and safe, strong and lightweight – a wonder material for just about any application you can imagine. But we can certainly deal with end-of-life plastics better, and slow the production of new material to help manage the quantities of useful material still in circulation.

New technologies are emerging for the permanent destruction of plastic, using naturally-occurring bacteria. Scientists have identified enzymes in bacteria that can break down plastics in a matter of hours. With further research, this could become the best possible way of dealing with plastic pollution in the future.

For now, recycling is the best new start we can give to old plastic, even if it can only go around a couple of times. Compared with compostable plastic and bioplastics, the impact is greatly reduced with recycling – and while we still need plastic in our daily lives, we should all be more conscious of how we use it and dispose of it: especially us, in the plastic industry.

100% Recycled and Recyclable Packaging

Make the right choice – get high quality, customisable recycled packaging, from NPF Packaging. Order our fully recyclable polythene layflat tubing – printed, tinted and specified to your exact requirement.

Get a quote now, or call us on 01773 820415.