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Can Plastic Really Biodegrade?

July 7, 2011

By Jennifer Chaky

Can you actually feel good about buying products made with supposed “biodegradable” plastic? What does it really mean to say a plastic will biodegrade?  It means that a material will break down completely, leaving behind no synthetic residues to destroy the value of the finished compost. However, most of these plastics only break down in commercial composting facilities where a specific mix of oxygen, moisture, and food create the anaerobic process of decomposition and where a high-temperature phase that sanitizes the product and allows a high rate of decomposition is followed by a lower-temperature phase that allows the product to stabilize while still decomposing at a lower rate. To determine if a bio plastic will meet the standards to break down in such a system, a certification system has been established to make it easy for consumers to ascertain if the product they are buying is truly a biodegradable plastic.

Look for the Compostable Label that ensures the American Society for Testing and Materials standards ASTM D6400 and ASTM D6868 are met. ASTM D6868 is for packaging that is designed to be composted, including plastic-coated paper and board and the ASTM D6400 is designed to cover plastic films and bags.

Ok, so what does this mean for you, the consumer? It’s great to buy these products, such as plastic bags, utensils, and cups, but unless you have access to a commercial compost facility what good is it? Well, I called around to a few commercial composters and although they do not service individual residents, their clients do include commercial enterprises such as large as hospitals and school systems, as well as small mom-and-pop pizza places. It’s only a matter of time before municipalities get on board and collect compostable materials such as food scraps and bio plastic from residents’ curbs just like some already collect lawn scraps.

Until then, these biodegradable items are still better than traditional plastic. They will burn cleaner in an incinerator, and will break down better than regular plastic (which does not break down at all!) in a landfill. Plus, they do not rely on petroleum as a base, which helps relieve us from our dependence on oil. So look for the label when you must buy disposable products.

A favorite line of biodegradable products of ours at Go Lightly is Worldcentric . We especially love their bagasse plates and bowls made from wheat stalks, which can in fact be composted right in your backyard. We use it for our vegan ice cream take out and it’s so cool to see it all turn back into nutrients for the soil instead of into pollution from a smokestack!

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