Is Biodegradable Plastic The Hero We Think It Is? (The Good, The Bad, And The Advice)

The plastic problem, let’s discuss it.

Since its inception in the early 1900s, mass produced plastic has been on a revolutionary journey. Once hailed as the hero product for its indestructible nature and ability to last almost forever, this wonder-product has now become the devil when it comes to sustainability and the health of our future planet.

As a global nation, we’ve produced an eye-watering estimated 6.3 billion tonnes of plastic to date. To put that into perspective, that’s around the same weight as 8 Mount Everests. It’s a huge amount, and every single piece is still on this earth, in some shape or form.


Residential plastic recycling began slowly making its way to the public in the 1970s, and we’ve to date recycled around 600 million tonnes of plastic. But that means that a whopping 4.9 billion tonnes still made its way to landfill, and is likely to remain there for the next thousand years or more.

plastic bottle


Biodegradable plastic: problem solved?

The traditional plastic cycle is far from sustainable. We’re producing more than we recycle, more than we need, and more than we can dispose of. There’s nowhere for it to go other than filling up land space and devastating our oceans. We’ve all seen the heartbreaking images of turtles with straws lodged up their nostrils and birds wrapped in fishing nets.

So what’s the solution? So far, the knight in shining armour has been biodegradable plastics. The word has made its debut on a huge variety of material goods, from nappies to food packets to clothing. And demand is on the rise. But what does it mean?

By definition, biodegradable means: “able to decay naturally and in a way that is not harmful to the environment.”.

Hurrah! Problem solved! Surely if a product is biodegradable, that means it’s much better for the planet because it will essentially disappear after a few years, right? Sadly, this isn’t quite the case.

Have biodegradables just put a plaster on the problem?

In many ways, yes. By nature, man made biodegradable plastics can in fact decompose without leaching any harmful chemicals or toxins into the environment.

But to actually decompose, there’s an entire process that the label doesn’t tell us. For a biodegradable plastic product to decompose it needs 3 things: heat, oxygen and light.

When a product gets thrown away and sent to landfill, it joins a mass pile and inevitably gets trapped somewhere deep in the mess. But that means that you’ve taken away 2 of the key components needed for it to start decomposing: oxygen and light. So it’ll just sit there forever.

Plus, many of these items can’t be recycled by us, the consumer, either. They need industrial scale machinery and a very specific set of conditions to live up to their name.

More recently, man made plastic alternatives are being made as ‘bioplastics’, meaning they are made from plant biomass (things like wheat, corn starch or sugar cane) instead of fossil fuels like oil. These options are a much better choice than traditional plastics so are an alternative to watch out for, yet their decomposing success still comes down to how the product ultimately gets disposed of.

Another kicker is that biomass needs a mass of plant material. And many producers are now using GMO crops and seizing huge amounts of land otherwise used to grow food for the agriculture business. Frustratingly, this means there’s still issues with this option, too.

Plastic waste on a mountain


What’s the big difference between all of these alternatives, and how can you make the right choice?

Let’s simplify:

Conventional plastics

These are petroleum-based, made from fossil fuels like oil. They will almost never decompose but most can be recycled at home.

Letters on the labels: PET, HDPE, PVC, LDPE*, PP, PS*

*Not recyclable.

Man made biodegradable plastics

These are also made from conventional plastics, but have additional chemicals added to aid in them breaking down when exposed to oxygen and light. Many of these are not recyclable at home, require very specific conditions to decompose due to the chemicals, and take 2-5 years or more to break down.

Bioplastics (compostable)

These are biodegradable plastics made from plant biomass and are much more likely to decompose naturally and should be compostable. However, specific conditions are still needed in order for the process to happen and they cannot be recycled at home.

Letters on the labels: PLA*.

*Not recyclable.

To summarise all that, whether or not a product will actually biodegrade depends fully on where it ends up. And although bioplastics may be the better option for the environment when used correctly, all types have their problems.


plastic waste in the sea


3 ways to stay sustainable with your plastic consumption:

1. Avoid it all together!

The simplest way to avoid adding to the plastic problem is to not buy plastic wherever you can. There are some brilliant alternatives out there, from Glass Bottled Washing Up Liquid to Wooden Dish Brushes to Bamboo Safety Razors.

2. Opt for ‘home compostable’

Items marked as ‘home compostable’ mean you can safely put them in your compost bin. If you don’t have a compost heap in your garden, your regular food waste bin is just fine, so make sure to order your food caddy from your local council!

Talking of food waste, did you catch our latest Zero Waste Potato Peel Crisps recipe?

3. Refill, reuse, recycle.

The 3 R’s to rule them all. A big thing to remember here is to start where you are right now. If you have plastic items in your home, it’s more sustainable and eco-friendly to refill, reuse and (if possible) recycle them, instead of buying a whole lot more product to replace them.

What do you think about the rise of biodegradable plastics? Will you opt for more sustainable and eco-friendly materials, like glass and wood, now that you know all of this? Join the conversation and let us know how you’re doing your bit for the earth by tagging us @wearthlondon on Instagram!