We all keep hearing that the world is drowning in plastic. Some of us know that it stands true even in the literal sense where our air, land and water are severely polluted and contaminated with macro, micro and nano-plastics. Multiple research shows that plastics have found their way into our food chain with the presence of microplastics detected in animals, birds, fish, human bloodstream, etc. While we often use hyperboles when we talk about rain such as, ‘it’s raining cats and dogs’ or ‘it’s raining so hard, we need an ark’, believe me when I say it’s raining plastics and it’s no exaggeration. I don’t wish to elaborate further about the impacts of plastic so as to not sound like a broken record. I also believe that these first few lines would have already given you an insight into the neck-deep plastic soup we find ourselves in. Instead, I wish to shed light on the techno-fixes, particularly the recently touted, highly acclaimed ‘bioplastics’, which are widely promoted as solutions to plastic pollution. I write this not only as a researcher but also as a consumer, in an attempt to identify and relate with thousands of other consumers who have fallen prey to the marketing ploys and gimmicks of the plastics industry which fuels the consumerist culture.
A few years ago, as I was scrolling through Instagram, I came across advertisements for ‘eco-friendly’ products by a company which claimed to be passionate about saving our planet. As a novice in sustainable living, I was immediately intrigued in doing my part as a global citizen to protect the environment. I bought some of their products such as bamboo toothbrush, bamboo makeup remover wipes, organic cotton buds with paper sticks and compostable garbage bags. At that time I was living in a gated community which insisted on collecting segregated waste. While my neighbours and I were aware of the government’s mandate/campaign to segregate household waste into biodegradable and non-biodegradable, we didn’t possess sufficient know-how to dispose of different kinds of waste appropriately. However as I was a proud consumer of a ‘compostable’ garbage bag, I had no guilt of tossing organic waste into my ‘compostable’ garbage bag. Once I made a purchase of these ‘eco-friendly’ products, I was targeted with more ads on products which were advertised with all possible green adjectives such as ‘eco-friendly, sustainable, vegan, clean, organic, green, biodegradable’, etc. While it was certainly heavier on my pocket to purchase eco-friendly products, I convinced myself that this is the price I have to pay for saving our planet and conserving it for future generations, especially since I was aware of my privilege compared to an average consumer who certainly could not pay for the luxury of sustainability. Fast forward to 3 years later, I am a researcher in solid waste management whose ‘sustainable consumer bubble’ is being poked every single day as I learn more about the plastic crisis right from the sourcing of fossil fuels to post-consumer disposal and waste management.
Research shows that consumers are increasingly prioritising sustainability in their purchasing decisions and are even willing to pay more. However, despite consumers’ willingness towards sustainable choices, unsustainable methods of production and consumption do not allow them to lead a sustainable life. The market is flooded with a multitude of techno-fixes for the plastic crisis which overwhelms the consumers inexplicably. The most popular so-called solution to the plastic problem is ‘bioplastics’. This term is often used interchangeably with biodegradable plastic, compostable plastic, oxo-degradable plastic, etc. However, they are not all the same and they do not solve the problems they claim to solve.
Let’s take a short detour to understand the difference between these terms before we delve into why they are not real solutions:
Bioplastics - Bioplastics is an umbrella term used to refer to plastics which are either sourced from biomass or converted to biomass at the end of their life. But often bioplastics commonly refer to bio-based plastics, meaning that unlike conventional plastics which are made from petroleum, these are made from plant feedstock such as sugarcane, cassava, cornstarch, etc. Bio-based plastics are not necessarily biodegradable and the only apparent benefit to the environment is the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions at the upstream stage (ie, the stage of extracting fossil fuels for production of polymers) as it is not made from fossil fuels. However, this is not completely an accurate statement as one needs to consider the entire lifecycle assessment before claiming that they are better for the environment.
Biodegradable plastics - The term ‘biodegradable’ refers to the ability of a material to degrade into natural components such as carbon dioxide, water, etc. due to the action of microorganisms. Not all biodegradable plastics are bio-based and vice versa. Biodegradability doesn't depend on the raw material (plant-based or fossil fuel) but depends only on the chemical composition of the polymers. The difference between the two is that bio-based refers to the origin or the source of the plastic whereas biodegradable plastic refers to the end-of-life management of the plastic. Biodegradable plastics do not simply/ naturally decay in the environment, but require chemical processes before the biological process by microorganisms.
Compostable plastics - Compostable plastics are a subset of biodegradable plastics, meaning all compostable plastics are biodegradable but not all biodegradable plastics are compostable. While compostable plastics also biodegrade, they require specific biological and chemical conditions and a composting environment for decomposition. This typically cannot be achieved in a home composting set-up and requires an industrial composting facility and treatment in high temperatures. One difference between biodegradable and compostable plastics is that while the latter can take a specific amount of time to degrade (usually about 6 months), the former’s timeframe for biodegradation is unspecified and varies with material, chemical and environmental conditions.
Oxo-degradable plastics - Oxo-degradable plastics are a category of its own kind and are neither biobased nor biodegradable plastics. They are made from conventional fossil fuel feedstock to which an additive is added which mimics degradation and allows the plastic to degrade or rather fragment into smaller particles called microplastics. Oxo-degradable plastics are the most problematic as they do not possess any characteristics of biodegradability and simply fragment into microplastics while deceiving the consumers with a misleading name.
Solution to pollution?
NO! Bioplastics, irrespective of their claims, are not a solution to plastic pollution and here’s why:
- Entire life cycle assessment - it’s more polluting!
A mere source of feedstock or end-of-life management being ‘bio-based’ or ‘biodegradable’ doesn’t make bioplastics better for the environment. An approach based on the assessment of the entire lifecycle of bioplastics would be more accurate to understand the impacts. While bio-based plastics do not contribute to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions directly as conventional plastics, the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre has found that ‘...overall performance of the use of this alternative feedstock for PP production is (thus) worse compared to its fossil-based counterpart..”. Demand for arable lands for feedstock production will lead to deforestation, hence reducing carbon sinks. Improper waste management of bioplastics will release large amounts of CO2 and methane.
- Waste management infrastructure - we don’t have it!
While some bioplastics are claimed to possess properties of biodegradability and compostability, this is possible only under very specific conditions. Therefore, bioplastics need to be collected, sorted and treated separately and if they accidentally enter the recycling chain (which they most often would), it would contaminate the entire batch of recyclables which would then have to be landfilled and /or end up in dumpyards. If bioplastics are not sorted and treated separately and end up in landfills or dump yards along with other organic waste, they will release large amounts of CO2 and methane which will contribute to GHG emissions.
Another major problem with end-of-life management of bioplastics is that the required composting and biodegradation facilities are not available in adequate numbers to manage the growing quantum of bioplastics produced. The market for bioplastics is projected to grow exponentially – from $17 billion in 2017 to $44 billion in 2022. But neither the global south nor the north have sufficient facilities to handle this amount of waste. Further, in global south countries, segregation at source, collection and sorting are already insufficient; therefore it is highly likely that introducing bioplastics in the regular stream will result in improper waste management.
- Single-Use - we will continue to ‘Take - Make - Waste’!
While the non-biodegradability and toxic chemicals are the major problems with plastic pollution, another major red flag is the ‘take-make-waste’ model propagated by unsustainable production patterns. Production of single-use plastics (SUP) exploded as they were marketed to make human lives easier and convenient. However, SUPs are the most polluting form of plastic waste considering the overall impact throughout their lifecycle for a mere few minutes of use of the product. Therefore, the real solution to the crisis can only be achieved by changing production and consumption patterns and moving to a non-toxic circular economy based on reuse and zero-waste systems. Promoting bioplastics as an alternative solution therefore does not solve the problem of unsustainable consumption. In fact, the ‘use and throw’ culture will only grow larger with the use of bioplastics as they are misclaimed to be ‘eco-friendly’.
- Mass production of bioplastics - plastics v. food!
If bioplastics are marketed as the ‘alternative’ to conventional plastics, that requires enough bio-based feedstock to replace roughly 400 million tonnes of plastics we produce each year. This requires large parcels of land and forests to be cleared for mass production of plant-based feedstock. This would mean that agriculture would be industrialised, cultivation of crops to make plastics would be prioritised and crops for regular human consumption would have to compete with the might of the plastics industry. This will result in food insecurity, thereby exacerbating hunger, unemployment and poverty. And as always, the brunt of this blow will be borne mainly by the vulnerable and marginalised communities.
- Greenwashing - ‘I am not plastic’? Of course, you are!
Greenwashing is a common practice of conveying misleading information and claims to consumers about the environmental soundness or impacts of a product. By now, I am sure everyone must have seen single-use plastic bags which are boldly marked, “ I AM NOT PLASTIC”. These are the so-called biodegradable and compostable plastics which claim not to be plastic while not providing the fine print of their disposal and degradation conditions. As mentioned earlier, consumers are increasingly becoming conscious of making sustainable purchasing decisions and the corporates are unabashedly monetising this change in consumer attitude by promoting false solutions to the problem. This misleads and deceives consumers into believing that they are making a sustainable choice while actually harming the planet and human, animal and marine health.
What is the ‘real’ solution?
The real solution to plastic pollution is staring right in our faces - stop producing more plastics! As affirmed by Ms. Inger Anderson, Executive Director, UNEP at the second round of negotiations for a global plastics treaty, ‘we cannot recycle our way out of this’. Moving to a non-toxic circular economy based on reuse and zero-waste systems is the only sustainable way forward. While we need producers to invest in innovation for exploring alternatives to plastics, greenwashing temporary fixes is not the solution to the plastic crisis.
Governments need to play a proactive role in regulating the so-called alternatives to plastics by independently testing and verifying the scientific evidence and practical feasibility of the claims made by producers and retailers. The Director General of Bureau of Indian Standards, Mr. Pramod Kumar Tiwari, told the press that ‘It has not been established whether any plastic is actually 100% biodegradable and that research on this is still ongoing in India and across the world’. While such a statement coming from the apex body for quality and safety control is greatly appreciated, it is unclear why BIS has allowed the certification of compostable plastics while acknowledging the problematic nature of bioplastics. A study on the environmental deterioration of bioplastics and conventional plastic bags found that ‘compostable plastic bags buried in soil for 3 years were so sturdy they could still hold a full load of groceries’. It is not fair to allow producers to continue production while asking consumers to stay away from the easily accessible, affordable and available products in the market.
Every time we talk about sustainability, particularly, moving away from plastics, the blame of not being mindful or responsible and the burden of spending more money to opt for alternatives to plastics falls on consumers. After over a year of learning and working in the field of plastics, I can affirmatively say that the crisis of plastic pollution CANNOT be resolved only with change in consumer behaviour and that any claim to the contrary is propaganda of the plastics industry. A documentary titled ‘Story of Plastic’ very beautifully explains this with an analogy where trying to end plastic pollution only through change in consumer behaviour while continuing production business as usual, is trying to empty a bathtub full of water with a small spoon while the tap is open. This analogy accurately explains that the only real solution to the plastic crisis is to ‘turn off the tap’ - cap plastic production. We are over familiarised and in all honesty benumbed to hearing the phrase ‘Say no to plastics’ being preached to citizens at every environmental awareness session. Do producers not have a social and legal obligation to lead ethical and sustainable business practices in compliance with the laws of the land? Why don’t we/governments ask the producers to say no to plastics? Let’s effectively address the problem at source together, instead of greensheening the crisis with unsustainable temporary fixes.