For something to be biodegradable it must be able to break down into its basic components and blend back into the earth. However, this is only possible when it is left in the correct conditions. For the process to take place there must be the presence of microorganisms, fungi, or bacteria. It can also take 3-6 months for biodegradable plastic bags to decompose.
So how “nature friendly” are biodegradable products and how safe are they?
Photo: Curtesy of Joanna Hardy
Unlike common plastic which are derived from petrochemicals, bioplastic is plant based meaning it will break down more quickly into its original particles. Although the process has been accelerated, so that instead of taking decades it takes a few months, bioplastic products can still cause problems.
Doggy bags and Bin bags
It has become common practise for some dog owners to leave used “dogie” bags at the foot of trees. Yes, the bioplastic they are made from will break down over time, however, there is still a question of hygiene and the safety of children and other animals.
Other dogs, especially puppies, have been known to pick up and destroy the bags. They can choke or suffocate if they swallow the bags, and even if they just “play” by the time they are finished you will wonder why you bothered clearing up after your dog in the first place!
It takes three to six months for most forms of bioplastic to break down, which is ample time for a small child or dog to get their hands/paws on it.
But it is not just children and dogs. Birds and other wildlife eat discarded bags that can choke and poison them.
Another problem with biodegradable bin bags, is that they can disintegrate or become unusable before you have the chance to use them. Because biodegradable bin bags are designed to break-down rapidly in the environment, they can also begin the process in your kitchen drawer before you get the chance to use them. How often have you removed a bag for use to see it crumble or tear before your eyes?
Discarded Bottles and Cups
These items can also be plant based. Similar, to bioplastic bags, they can cause problems for wildlife when discarded.
Parts can break off which can nip internal organs of hedgehogs and squirrels or become stuck causing suffocation.
The plants from which bioplastics are based are also poisonous to some animals and birds.
The liquids contained within the cups and bottles, even a small amount, can be harmful, especially sugary drinks, alcohol, and any processed fats. These can cause serious health problems for larger animals and could even kill them.
The biggest problem, however, is that the bacteria and microorganisms needed to decompose the bioplastic do not live in seawater. Marine life can get tangled, and even choke to death, or ingest so much bioplastic products that they starve to death. Even in freshwater bottles and cellophane can become stuck on the beaks of birds such as ducks and seagulls, causing them serious injury or to starve to death.
Paper is naturally biodegradable as it is sourced from trees. It takes a month for paper to fully decompose when left in landfill or a recycling centre. This is much faster than biodegradable plastic.
The materials are also much safer for animals who may digest paper cups and bottles should they be discarded. However, that does not mean they are without problems.
Paper cups are often used for coffee and other beverages which are harmful to wildlife and attract insects. The cups themselves are often lined with plastic which is a hazard to animals and children.
Like many products, paper takes years to fully decompose if swept out to sea. This causes problems for marine life. As they cannot digest paper, it can block their stomachs and cause starvation.
Used Food Containers
Compostable food containers are made from a combination of bioplastic and paper. This means it can take from 2 weeks to 6 months for these products to fully decompose. Any plastic components can cause choking for children and wildlife. Cellophane made of Bioplastic can still take millions of years to decompose in oceans and rivers.
Take your own cup to the coffee shop.
If you use “disposable” cups etc, ensure you dispose of them into suitable bins.
Do not purchase large quantities of bio-degradable bags. Use them up quickly.
Ensure dog waste is put into a bin. Do not leave it lying around.
Take your rubbish home if there are no bins and dispose of it in your own bins.