Biodegradable plastic is bad for the environment, British MPs say

biodegradable plastic cup
CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 Plan It Green Printing

It's time we stopped greenwashing plastic alternatives and realized they do more harm than good.

A committee of British MPs has spoken out against plastic pollution – specifically, the biodegradable and compostable alternatives that are often touted as a great replacement, but are, in fact, a problem in themselves. The MPs have said that encouraging people to use these instead of conventional plastics could increase the level of plastic pollution on land and in water.

This may sound counterintuitive, but the fact is that these 'green' plastics are not any better for the environment. Most require an industrial composting facility to break down, and most people do not have access to this. (Very rarely have I encountered ones that are compatible with home composters.) When mixed with regular plastic, compostable plastics contaminate the recycling stream. Perhaps worst of all, they allow people to continue their throwaway habits, instead of embracing reusables.

The MPs collected information from various non-governmental organizations, such as Green Alliance, which said that knowing a cup is biodegradable can make "consumers think it was fine to discard it into the environment." The Environmental Investigation Agency pointed out that biodegradable plastics pose the same problems to marine life that petroleum-based plastics do. Keep Britain Tidy complained,

"The drive to introduce bioplastics, biodegradable plastics and compostable plastics is being done with limited emphasis on explaining the purpose of these materials to the public or consideration of whether they are in fact better from an environmental perspective than the plastic packaging they replace."

As an environmental writer, I encounter these so-called 'green' plastics all the time; people are often excited to inform me that their business now uses biodegradable cutlery, compostable cups, etc. San Francisco is the only city I know of that banned bio-plastic straws along with regular ones, demonstrating a unique understanding of bioplastic's shortcomings.

It's clear that public awareness is lacking as to the inadequacy of these alternatives. A UN report in 2016 found that biodegradable plastics do not break down in the oceans, and a 2019 study discovered that a biodegradable grocery bag could still carry a full load of groceries after three years submerged in water or buried underground. These are clearly not effective solutions.

Plastic-free alternatives need to be thoroughly examined, too. As Green Alliance told the MPs, "You cannot have a wholesale switchover to bio-based plastics, to aluminium, to glass or to paper, which all have environmental consequences themselves."

Reducing demand and use remains the most logical, environmentally sound, and sustainable approach, and this should be the focal point for governments creating new policies. We should tackle our single-use culture, rather than perpetuate it, if we ever hope to create less waste.

Biodegradable plastic is bad for the environment, British MPs say
It's time we stopped greenwashing plastic alternatives and realized they do more harm than good.

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