Consumers think that recycling is about “stuff.” This is not true. The true value of recycling is not about materials—although it is good materials policy to recycle—it is about energy. Recycling saves a tremendous amount of energy and, as we all know in today’s world, energy equals pollution. Look at the materials that have a high recycling rate—aluminum being the best example—they are the materials that use a tremendous amount of energy to initially produce, thus recycling aluminum, glass, steel, paper etc… saves huge amounts of energy. Making something from recycled uses far less energy than making it out of virgin materials. This is true for plastic too. It is just that manufacturing plastic does not use very much energy in the first place. This is one of the reasons it is a relatively inexpensive material.
Why are consumers so preoccupied with degradable products? I honestly do not know, but I can guess. It is guilt alleviation. People can still buy an iced latte or a garden salad to go, but since it is in a degradable (or bioplastic) container, they don’t have to feel guilty. Unlike regular plastic, it will not be around “forever.” Hooray!…or maybe not. Let’s think this through a bit more.
What will happen to the bioplastic/degradable cup now that we are done with it? It will not compost in our home compost bin. There is no recycling infrastructure for it—or for any of the “degradable plastic.” In fact, degradable plastic and bioplastic are both serious contaminants to existing plastic recycling systems. Thus, the cup will probably need to be thrown “away”—most likely, it will go to a landfill. In the landfill, it may or may not degrade. Let’s hope it does not degrade, because if it does, it will add to greenhouse gas—GHG—emissions. Did you know that landfills are the single biggest source of the GHG methane? We should not be putting degradable materials into landfills.
Many Compost Operators Refuse Degradables
Or, perhaps your town has a food-waste compost system! Lucky you, most communities do not. Unfortunately, many compost operators do not want degradable or bioplastic. My local composter—Sonoma Compost—will not take them because they do not degrade quickly enough; they look like conventional plastic, thus create contamination; and the National Organic Program does not allow synthetic or GMO generated materials as feedstock.
But, perhaps your local composter will accept them. So it goes to the compost heap where the best case scenario is…it disappears! It does not add any nutrients to the soil; it just disappears. Composting bioplastic squanders all the energy it took to grow the corn, harvest the corn, turn the corn into sugar, turn the sugar into plastic, and turn the plastic into a cup (or a salad container). No energy is recovered; the cup just disappears. This is imprudent. If the cup was a traditional plastic container, it could be recycled. It should be recycled! We should be capturing the energy that went into turning the crude oil into monomers, turning the monomers into polymers and turning the polymers into a cup.
There are only a few limited scenarios when it might make sense to use degradable or bioplastic packaging—for example, at events where the disposal of the material can be controlled. The public can put the bioplastic in bins along with the food waste and the whole thing can go to an appropriate compost system.
Not a Solution for Litter
Keep in mind that neither bioplastic nor degradable plastic are necessarily going to help us with the litter problem either. According to experts, they do not degrade as litter, or in the ocean. (See article.)
So tell me again, why are consumers so enamored with degradable? Oh yeah, guilt.
The use of plastic is often the most energy efficient option. The use of recycled plastic is even more energy efficient. There is no sustainability without recycling. Recycle plastic! Save the molecule!
[With thanks to Dave Cornell, technical director of the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers, for coining “Save the Molecule.”]
Patricia Moore is president and CEO of Moore Recycling Associates Inc. The company is celebrating its 20th year in business. Moore is an internationally recognized authority in postconsumer plastic collection and recycling and has been involved in the recycling field since 1983.