By Surfrider Pacific Rim Chapter Manager Lilly Woodbury
You know that gut feeling you get when you’re doing something, and you’re telling yourself it’s okay – but deep down you know it’s probably wrong. Trust that feeling. Most of the time, our inner and outer environments will thank us. As most of us reading this will be aware, plastic pollution has skyrocketed as an issue of focus around the world. Of course, when anything gains this much attention, especially as something to solve, innovation follows. Many plastic pollution innovations have already worked to mitigate this issue, including the rise of reusables, marine debris recycling, and technologies that capture plastic in rivers before they can reach the sea. And as people work to move away from plastics, beginning with the easiest and most obvious – single-use plastics, there has been a swell of companies looking to replace these items with a look-a-like: bioplastics. The intention behind the people who use these products points to a positive – that we are trying to think greener, and trying to imbue our lives with more sustainable behaviours. Unfortunately, current mainstream bioplastics neither completely solve the most concerning issues of conventional plastics and they create a whole new set of environmental issues.
What are bioplastics? Unlike conventional plastic, which is fashioned from fossil fuels, these plastics are made from sources such as microbes and plants. One of the most common bioplastics is PLA – polylactic acid, which is made from crops like corn and sugarcane. If you encounter a single-use bioplastic item, there’s a good chance it’s made from PLA. Now, bioplastics are particularly perplexing because they are not all created the same, and with this, there is no single concrete definition for bioplastics. Instead, bioplastics refer to a broad range of products that are bio-based and/or biodegradable, typically labeled as “biodegradable” or “compostable.” Like conventional plastics, bioplastics can still contain additives and harmful toxins, which create issues for human health and ecosystems.
Mainstream bioplastics are supplied and purchased by people because they believe they will “break down easier”; that they will disintegrate in a natural environment, or be processed through a waste management system. Mainstream biodegradable and compostable plastics will only break down in an industrial facility, which depends on high temperatures amongst other particular factors for the items to disintegrate. For instance, if compostable plastics are not composted and are sent to landfill, they can get trapped in what is called an “anaerobic” environment. In this situation, compostable plastics, among all other organics, produce one of the most volatile greenhouse gases: methane. According to Stats Canada, 20% of methane production in Canada comes from landfills for this very reason. Since there is no commercial composting facility on the Pacific Rim, we are contributing to this unfortunate reality. Bioplastics, in particular – biodegradable plastics, that end up in the ocean also create pollution, since there is not enough heat to completely break these items down. Additionally, when bioplastics are not discarded correctly, they can also contaminate recycling streams and damage recycling infrastructure, and when recycling streams are contaminated, materials are sent to landfill.
The environmental qualms do not end at the disposal issue of bioplastics. Let’s take a walk back in time before a bioplastic item had the opportunity to end up in a landfill or in a swampy ditch, back to when the item was manufactured. Bioplastics, which are often adorned with leaf designs, or other nature evoking imagery, usually come from questionable sources. A common crop used for bioplastics is corn, and corn is one of the top genetically modified crops on the planet. Ironically, GMO crops depend on fossil fuel based pesticides and chemicals, which then leach into soils and wash into waterways. Some innovation is promising as there are bioplastics being made from renewable and sustainable resources like seaweed, which do not require fertilizers and pesticides, which are sourced locally and can provide benefits to local composting systems, but these products have yet to hit the mainstream market.
To add to this alarming picture, farms are also needed to grow the crops to make mainstream bioplastics, and this land could be used for furthering food security, and for the regeneration of the planet. According to the Plastic Pollution Coalition,
“It is predicted that as a result of the rise in global production capacity of bio-based plastics, around 1.4 million hectares of land for feedstock will be required by 2019, more than the size of Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark combined. Only 5% of global production is expected to take place in Europe, with 81% taking place in Asia, where related production impacts include land degradation and a loss of natural habitats, reduced water quality, increased levels of pollution and land conflicts”.
This certainly is an excessive amount of resources for items that will be used once before being tossed. Energy is also needed to till and harvest the crops, to manufacture the plastics and to transport the plastics. Considering this, it’s not surprising that every product we buy, use and most of the time – dispose of, contains on average about 5% of the raw materials and energy involved in its making and delivering. So, the issue is not just with plastics and the many problems they pose to the environment, but about mass disposability and single-use items in general. As sustainability writer, Francesca Willow stated in her article about coffee cup waste, “We need structural change, corporate overhaul, and new environmental policies. We can’t just consume our way out of things.” We need to move away from plastics as much as we can, away from single-use items as much as we can, lower the amount we consume, consume consciously for things we need, as well as make our voices be heard to government and industry about protecting the environment from pollution. So, here’s to trusting that gut feeling, and knowing that a possible lesser of evils is often not the right answer.