Why ‘Biodegradable’ and ‘Compostable’ Plastics won’t help the plastic crisis

With the plastic pollution crisis gaining more and more attention, brands are being called out and frantically looking for ways to stay in business while keeping customers happy. 

A lot of the time, they use a fancy trick called greenwashing. They use buzz words like “biodegradable” or “compostable” to get people’s attention and believe that they’re doing better for the planet. But actually, they aren’t.

I’ve talked about greenwashing a lot before but some of the most popular examples are companies that are starting to make reusable straws because it’s trendy but wrapping them in plastic packaging. Which kind of defeats the purpose of trying to reduce our plastic waste.

Another example is clothing lines that create an “eco-friendly” collection to appeal to a younger audience that cares about the planet but aren’t fully educated on the subject of fast fashion. If your entire brand isn’t sustainable, it’s greenwashing in my opinion. because it’s “trendy” to be eco-friendly right now.

And I believe this is what is happening to the words “biodegradable” and “compostable”.

In theory, these are both great, sustainable options. I’d love to see every product ever created be able to break down and leave no trace. But frankly, that’s just now realistic. Let’s break down each word, shall we?

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The problem with Biodegradable plastics:

The very word puts a lot of people at ease. It leads them to believe that they can grab a drink to-go, get a straw, toss it out when they’re done and it will biodegrade into nothing within a few weeks.

And in theory that’s how it’s supposed to work. Biodegradable materials were designed to “biodegrade” and break down into nothing in a matter of weeks or months leaving behind no trace of its existence. 

This is what they’d like you to believe anyway. And without any further explanation other than the “biodegradable” label, most people do believe this without giving it a second thought. 

Recent research, however, has found these so-called biodegradable plastics to still be intact after 3 years of either being at sea or buried. 

In the same study, they also tested compostable products, as well as biodegradable ones in three elements including being buried underground, out at seas, and outdoors in wind and sunlight and neither of them broke down and were actually almost completely still intact. 

Read the full study here.

So for me, when I see a coffee shop or a fast food place start replacing their regular plastic straws with “biodegradable” straws, or grocery stores start to use “biodegradable bags”, I can’t help but think of the extra damage this causes.

Not only are these biodegradable plastics no better than single-use plastics, but they’re giving consumers a false sense of sustainability. 

Because let’s face it, how many people actually care enough to do their own research? Honestly, not a lot. They see something that looks or sounds good from a giant company and takes that information at face value. But it’s important to know that all those biodegradable straws and bags aren’t breaking down.

biodegradable and compostable plastics

Compostable doesn’t mean what you think it does:

It’s very easy to get “biodegradable” and “compostable” confused. Here are their quick definitions:

Biodegradable is a material or substance capable of being decomposed by bacteria or other living organisms.

Compostable means that a product or material is capable of disintegrating into natural materials completely (usually within 90 days) and leaving no toxicity behind.

So compostable sounds better than biodegradable, right? Wrong. 

Most nature elements and materials are considered to be compostable such as leaves, grass, manure, and food. But as I explain here, our food doesn’t actually compost in landfills. We might toss our apple core or wilted greens into the trash not worrying about it because it should compost. But there actually isn’t enough air in our landfills to properly break down even natural materials.

But what about compostable plastic bags or other products labeled compostable?

While they might deteriorate faster than regular, single-use plastic, it’s not by much and only if the conditions are right.

Meaning just throwing them in the trash and hoping for the best won’t cut it. Even if you have a compost bin at home, a lot of these “compostable” products are only designed o break down in industrial composts.

A lot of these compostable plastics also contain chemicals and additives to help hold the product together. Both of which will impact the soil where it was composted. 

Another problem with biodegradable and compostable materials is that people often just throw them into the recycling bin. This is also a huge no-no because it can ruin the whole batch because it can’t be recycled and instead of sorting through everything at the recycling plant, it’ll just be sent to the landfill anyway. 

Final thoughts:

So, are biodegradable and compostable plastics going to save us from the current plastic pollution crisis? No, I don’t think so. Certainly not with the way it’s currently going.

I think we’re onto an idea. An idea that needs a lot of improvement before it can be substantially beneficial to us and our planet. 

Because right now I think it’s doing more harm than good. It’s teaching us to believe everything we see/read about. It’s teaching us not to ask questions and not to think about where our products came from and where they’re going and what impact they will have.

I know there are so many wonderful brands that are actually home compostable or biodegradable and so many other options like reusable straws and bags out there.

I’m just suggesting to do your research and many not trust every giant brand and company who hasn’t been sustainable up to this point as to how “compostable” or “biodegradable” they actually are. 

I’m not saying that you should walk around with a burning distrust for everything you see, but just don’t take it at face value. Read up on it for yourself and make the best-educated decision.

The best option, in my opinion, would be to avoid using “compostable” or “biodegradable” straws and grocery bags and packaging altogether. 

Here are some of my favorite reusable and compostable/biodegradable products (that actually work!) to help make these switches easier:

Related posts:

Why the zero waste movement isn’t sustainable

How to sustainably dispose of old makeup and cosmetics

Indoor composting 101

Thanks for reading, I hope this post gave you something to think about and be aware of. Please don’t forget to share this post if you like it and follow me on Instagram for daily low waste living inspiration.

biodegradable and compostable plastics


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