400 million tons of plastic are produced each year. Only 9% of it is recycled. So where does the rest go? More than 18 billion pounds a year end up in our oceans. The majority goes into landfills where it takes centuries to biodegrade. There, the toxic chemicals in plastic pollute our groundwater and harm the environment.
As global awareness related to plastic consumption increases, eco-plastic has been offered as a possible remedy.
But what is eco-plastic and is it eco-friendly?
The first type of eco-plastic is plastic made entirely or mostly from recycled plastic. Think water bottles turned into lawn furniture. This eco-plastic is not any more biodegradable than regular, petroleum-based plastic, but it does benefit the environment as long as it stays out of landfills and stays in use.
The next type of eco-plastic is called bioplastic. This plastic is made from plants or other biological materials. Polylactic acids, or PLAs, are made by extracting sugar from plants like corn and sugarcane. Polyhydroxyalkanoates, or PHAs, can be engineered from microorganisms. PLA plastic is commonly used in food packaging, while PHA is often used in medical devices like sutures and cardiovascular patches.
Because bioplastic isn’t made of oil like regular plastic, as it degrades, bioplastics are supposed to add less carbon to the atmosphere. Bioplastics simply return the carbon that plants sucked up while growing instead of releasing carbon that had previously been trapped underground in the form of oil.
Sounds pretty eco-friendly?
The truth is a bit more complicated: bioplastics are meant to biodegrade in landfills and some may even compost in compost environments, but not all bioplastics meet the standard for biodegradation. Consumers can be easily misled about product sustainability so it’s important to do your research and ensure that the products you purchase are in fact safely biodegradable and won’t harm our planet.