“One of the most ubiquitous and long-lasting recent changes to the surface of our planet is the accumulation and fragmentation of plastics.”
(David Barnes, a lead author and researcher for the British Antarctic Survey)
What Is The Problem with - most - Plastic?
Plastic is built to last - forever. Which is great for freshness and durability, but once that need has been met, those same qualities make most plastic unsustainable for our planet.
According to National Geographic, 8 million tons of plastic is dumped into the ocean every year. That’s five grocery bags for every foot of coastline around the world. And that plastic eventually breaks down into tiny particles - microplastics - that fish and other organisms can consume.
Makes you wonder about that expensive lobster dinner, doesn’t it?
What’s more, according to Scientific American since [most] plastic isn’t biodegradable, it ends up either in landfills or as litter on the landscape and in waterways and the ocean. Some plastics - PVD and PVC as well as Saran coatings and certain inks - even release toxins into our soil and water table.
It's also a huge problem for the health of wildlife, as many animals ingest it thinking it is food and can have problems thereafter breathing and digesting.
Houston, we have a problem. And that problem isn’t going away because regular plastic just doesn’t go away.
But Doesn't Plastic Biodegrade - Eventually?
How long do you think it takes regular plastic to decompose? One hundred years or maybe a thousand? How about never. According to David Suzuki, most petroleum plastic takes a thousand years to break down, but even then, it won’t decompose into useful nutrients, it just turns into infinitely smaller pieces of plastic, which - according to Popular Science - act like magnets in the water, attracting toxic substances.
So why doesn't plastic decompose?
Because microbes - those tiny but essential organisms that convert decomposed matter into vital nutrients - turn their nose up at most plastic, they simply won’t consume it.
How Do We Make Plastic More Sustainable?
The bottom line is that there is simply too much plastic for our world to handle, and the problem is getting worse. The Huffington Post recently reported that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish.
And although some researchers point out plastic’s carbon footprint (plastic manufacturing and production represents 8% of the world’s annual oil consumption) - right now most scientists agree that plastic pollution is the biggest environmental threat, begging the question, what should we do with all that plastic - today?
Outside of reducing and re-using plastic whenever possible, there are three realistic options when it comes to making plastic more sustainable:
- Recycle it.
- Ban or tax it.
- Find a way to make it biodegrade.
Is Recycling Worth it?
Recycling makes sense because it reduces waste and consumes less energy than virgin plastic. However, throwing plastic in a recycling bin does not guarantee that it will be recycled. According to Columbia University’s Earth Institute, of the 7 potentially recyclable plastics, only two are routinely recycled.
- PET - The plastic typically used in synthetic fibres or water bottles.
- HDPE - The plastic used for jugs, bottle caps and water pipes.
And of the 33.6 million tons of plastic Americans discard each year, only 6.5 percent of plastic is recycled. That leaves 28 million tons of plastic for landfills, the ocean or in the ditch across the road from your house.
So in a word - yes - recycling is worth it, but it is only part - or 6% - of the solution because it is unlikely to reduce the amount of plastic in our Oceans, landfills, water table and soil any time soon.
How Can We Ban Plastic Bags?
Not all plastic is created equal. Some, such as the plastic used in car manufacturing, may actually help the environment because it makes cars lighter and more fuel efficient. Plastic grocery bags, on the other hand, are usually used once and then discarded, leading many countries - Ireland, Taiwan, South Africa, Australia, and Bangladesh - to heavily tax or ban their use altogether.
While the ban and tax strategy might work for grocery bags and single use plastics, there are other, more complex, plastics that are unlikely to be banned any time soon.
One such plastic is kind used to package food, or coffee bags. Flexible - barrier - packaging helps keep food fresh by keeping oxygen, moisture and harmful bacteria out. It is often sold in resealable bags so that it can be used multiple times.
At present, there are no reusable substitutes and most barrier packaging cannot be recycled because it's made of several layers of plastic.
In other words, virtually all the plastic used to keep food fresh will end up in a landfill or as plastic pollution. And that plastic will just sit there, or as a team of Scientists recently reported in the Royal society journal “...by placing plastics in landfill we may simply be storing a problem for the future”.
Does Biodegradable Plastic Really Work?
So what do we do with all the plastic that can’t be recycled and won’t be banned in the near future? What about the 28 million tons of American plastic that is destined for the trash heap, or worse, the growing pile(s) of garbage in the Ocean today?
We make it biodegrade of course!
The Oxford dictionary states that an object is biodegradable if it is capable of being decomposed by bacteria or other living organisms without leaving any pollutants behind.
Okay - sounds simple enough - now picture yourself heading down the aisle at your local grocer when you come across some freshly roasted coffee beans, packaged in biodegradable plastic. Amazing, right? But what happens when it’s time to dispose of that package? Will it go into your backyard compost, your garbage can, or your municipal compost bin? And what will happen once it gets there?
Suddenly it's not so simple. And that is problem with a lot of 'biodegradable' or 'compostable' packaging. There are often so many requirements for it to 'biodegrade' that it makes you wonder who is really benefitting, the environment, or the marketing team that put the biodegradable label on the bag.
Case in point, SunChip's compostable bag.
SunChips' - Kinda, Sorta, Not Really -100% Compostable Bag
In 2010, SunChips launched their new '100% compostable' chip bag. It was a big deal. For all the reasons stated above, it could have meant a major step towards sustainability in the packaged goods industry.
However, if you read the fine print and dug into the research, you'd realize that the bag only decomposed, or biodegraded, under very specific conditions. Conditions that the average consumer would not have access to, or even be aware of.
You see, SunChips' bag was made of PLA, a polymer derived primarily from corn. Awesome right? Corn is a plant, so that means it must be renewable. Which it is, but that doesn't mean it uses less fossil fuels than regular plastic.
In an article from Scientific American - How Green are Green Plastics - research scientists Tillman Gerngross and Steven Slater stated:
“Although PLA production uses fewer fossil resources than its petrochemical counterparts, it still requires more energy and thus emits more greenhouse gases during manufacture...
The conclusions from our analyses were inescapable. The environmental benefit of growing plastic in plants is overshadowed by unjustifiable increases in energy consumption and gas emissions.”
Bioplastics and PLA, How Green Are They Really?
While PLA and other bioplastics (plastics derived from plant matter) offer a feel good solution, they are not as 'green' as we would like to believe. The Smithsonian institute published an insightful article highlighting some of the issues, which we have summarized below:
- Polylactic acid will not decompose unless it is placed in a commercial compost where it reaches 140 degrees for ten consecutive days. "So, yes, as PLA advocates say, corn plastic is “biodegradable.” But in reality very few consumers have access to the sort of composting facilities that can make that happen."
- If dropped in the Ocean, a landfill, or backyard compost, there's no evidence to suggest that PLA will biodegrade at all. "Glenn Johnston, manager of global regulatory affairs for NatureWorks, says that a PLA container dumped in a landfill will last “as long as a PET bottle.” No one knows for sure how long that is, but estimates range from 100 to 1,000 years."
- "The cultivation of corn uses more nitrogen fertilizer, more herbicides and more insecticides than any other U.S. crop; those practices contribute to soil erosion and water pollution when nitrogen runs off fields into streams and rivers."
- “We’d like to see PLA be the resin of the future, but we know it never will be,” says Selzer [Vice President at Wilcinson Industries, who convert PLA resin into plastic packaging]. “It’s cost stable, but it can’t go above 114 degrees. I’ve had people call me and say, ‘Oh my god, I had my takeout box in my car in the sun and it melted into a pancake!’”
- Polylactic acid is not recyclable. "Because PLA and PET mix about as well as oil and water, recyclers consider PLA a contaminant. They have to pay to sort it out and pay again to dispose of it."
So in answer to the question - does biodegradable plastic really work? - it comes down to (1) the time it takes for the plastic to break down and (2) where the plastic is left to biodegrade and (3) the matter, or nutrients, that remain once it has degraded.
According to the ASTM standards council, biodegradable plastic degrades as the result of naturally occurring microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi and algae, while compostable plastic undergoes degradation by biological processes that yield carbon dioxide (CO2), water, inorganic compounds, and biomass at a rate consistent with other known compostable materials, leaving no visible, distinguishable or toxic residue.
So is there any biodegradable plastic that actually does this? We're happy to say that the quick answer is - yes - but not all biodegradable or compostable plastic decomposes or degrades at the same rate, under the same circumstances.
What is the Most Viable 'Biodegradable' Plastic Solution?
After 35 years in the packaging industry, TekPak Solutions was created in response to a growing demand for sustainable packaging. There are a lot of options out there - and an equal amount of confusion - so we looked for the most viable option - not a ‘greenwashing’ alternative.
Here are the four most common options we explored:
- Polylactic Acid (PLA)
- Oxo-bio or degradable plastics
- Petroleum plastics treated with organic compounds (we’ll call them OCP - Organic Compound Plastics)
After ten years of testing, we believe that OCPs - Organic Compound Plastics - are the only viable solution because:
- They harmlessly decompose anywhere that microbes are present (salt and fresh water, soil, landfills or in a backyard compost).
- They decompose into organic matter without leaving any pollutants behind. ( Independent Lab tests show - "None Detected" ).
- They are as recyclable as all standard petroleum plastics.
- They are shelf stable, meaning they won’t degrade on a store shelf or in someone’s pantry, they only biodegrade in environments rich in microbes, like soil or water.
- They are cost effective - close to the same price as traditional packaging.
PLA, Oxo-Bio and Cellophane don’t have the same benefits. For a thorough comparison of PLA, Oxo-Bio and Cellophane, check out this blog article.
What Are Organic Compound Plastics (OCPs)?
OCPs decompose anywhere microbes are present - such as in the wilderness, the Ocean, lakes and streams, backyard soil and even in anaerobic landfills. Remember microbes, those essential organisms that turn decomposed matter into vital nutrients? OCPs make plastic appealing to microbes. They actually want to consume the plastic when the compounds have been added.
Like oxo-degradable plastics, OCPs employ an additive (in much smaller amounts), that make microbes want to consume it. Unlike Oxo-degradable plastics, OCPs won't degrade on a shelf and they don't just break down into micro plastics, they actually decompose.
Like many great discoveries, OCPs were actually the result of a failed attempt to find a completely different solution - a more attractive fishing lure. In this case, an American Scientist added organic compounds to his plastic lures, thinking they would attract more fish. Turns out he was wrong. The fish wouldn’t touch them.
However, after several weeks, the lures appeared to be melting in the cold lake he had been testing them in. After conducting some lab tests, he realized they were being digested by microbes. The interaction of the organic compounds and the microbes created enzymes (amino acids) that could then break down the long-chain molecules of the plastic, (these normally keep plastics intact for a thousand years), into tiny pieces that were then consumed by the microbes. All that remained was Water, CO 2 and a tiny amount of organic biomass, all of which are beneficial to plant growth.
Over the past 10 years TekPak has used these same compounds to develop high barrier packaging, bio-foils, zippers and off-gasing valves for stand up pouches and coffee bags that will break down in Anaerobic landfills where there is little to no oxygen - here they create water, methane and organic biomass. This methane is commonly captured as a source of free fuel for cars, buses, etc.
Why are Organic Compound Plastics the Only Viable Option?
The University of Milan, Italy, recently surveyed the bio-plastics and biodegradable plastics industries and concluded that adding organic compounds to traditional petroleum plastics - like TekPak’s Omnidegradable® packaging - is the only viable solution to tackle the issue of plastic pollution (Congresso Delle Materie Plastiche (2008, October 23) Milanofiori Congress Center - Assago (MI))
- Organic Compound Plastics are the only plastic that has indefinite Shelf-Life and will biodegrade in landfills, backyard composts, soil and Oceans.
- Organic Compound Plastics can be easily integrated into existing plastic manufacturing plants - meaning we can start making biodegradable plastic today.
- Land typically used for food crops in developing countries is being turned over to grow biofuels and make bio-plastics like PLA. This issue would be reduced if we focused on making petroleum plastics more sustainable and gradually introduced renewable plastic sources.
TekPak specifically chose to manufacture Organic Compound Plastic pouches and high barrier plastics because:
- Regular Stand-up pouches and most high barrier plastics are not recyclable.
- Regular Stand-up pouches and most high barrier plastics are not going to be banned, taxed, or removed from store shelves any time soon.
- Regular Stand-up pouches and high barrier plastics will either end up in a landfill or as plastic pollution where they simply won’t decompose and will take hundreds, to thousands, of years to break down.
TekPak’s plastics and pouches have been tested under anaerobic conditions (worst case scenario) by a third party, indepenent lab in the U.S.. These lab reports confirm that TekPak’s Omnidegradable® plastic will biodegrade into organic matter.
Where to go from here, the future of Plastic
Sustainability is inevitably at odds with our modern desire to buy more stuff, and we don't expect this to change any time soon. The question that remains is how can we reduce our impacts today?
When it comes to plastic packaging, I think our research supports the notion that Organic Compound Plastics (OCPs) are the only sustainable alternative to traditional petroleum packaging. Here's why:
- They are as functional as any regular petroleum plastic, with the essential advantage of biodegrading once placed in a microbially rich environment - including anaerobic landfills and the ocean.
- Organic Compound Plastics can be easily integrated into existing plastic manufacturing plants - meaning we can start making biodegradable plastic today.
- Organic Compound Plastics are cost effective - almost the same price as regular plastic - and just as functional as regular plastics, meaning they won't break down on a shelf and they offer the highest degree of barrier protection.
And with continued innovation we will - one day - develop packaging the gives more to our environment than it takes.
Do you use high barrier packaging and stand up pouches? Would your customers want to support a company that makes sustainability a priority? Contact us for some samples and let us help you become a part of the solution.
Want to learn more about biodegradable and sustainable packaging?