The planet really can’t catch a break, can it? Turns out that oh-so trendy biodegradable plastic meant to save human kind from drowning under a mountain of water bottles and takeout containers actually can’t go in your compost. Or your recycling bin. FML.
You may have noticed 2019 was the year of biodegradable plastic (along with JLo and Beyond Burgers). Green-conscious brands pat themselves on the back for offering one-use containers they claimed would one day melt back into the ground from whence they came. And we pat ourselves on the back for believing we, too, were cutting good ol’ Mother Earth a break by buying them. Oh, how naïve we were.
Here’s the deal: technically, yes, those plastics (also known as Polyactic or PLA plastic) are hypothetically biodegradable under optimal conditions, but the likelihood of them actually breaking down is slim to none and waste management services are advising consumers to just dump them in the garbage.
Yeah, that’s right, not the compost. Not the recycling. The garbage.
OKAY, BUT WTF?
The City of Toronto explains that neither the organics stream nor the recycling stream can handle PLA plastic. It’s not made of the same stuff as other plastics—it’s starch- rather than oil-based—so it can’t be processed and reused along with its similar-looking non-biodegradable compadres. Plus, since it’s so similar-looking to regular plastic, it either gets sorted out of organic waste because they can’t tell the difference or sorted out later in the process because it doesn’t decompose as fast.
So, are they at least better when they end up in the ocean? According to BBC Future, maybe not. While they’ll technically “break down,” it’s hard to tell if they’re degrading into their molecular components (like food waste does) or just breaking into smaller pieces and dispersing the waste.
RELATED: Want to cut down on plastic? Try these handy swaps
SO WHAT THE HECK IS THE POINT?
First of all, producing PLAs is mostly better for the environment. Since they’re not made from traditional fossil fuels, they don’t emit toxic chemicals when burned (which is inevitable). However, there is some confusion over the exact size of the carbon footprint since products often use GMO corn grown with harmful pesticides.
When it comes to disposal, PLAs are still relatively new, so the industry needs to play catch-up. BBC Future outlines how we need a system that treats these plastics differently (starting with labeling) so they’ll actually be disposed of and ~composted~ responsibly.
Some companies that know the limitations of using PLAs are doing what they can to make sure they’re not going straight to landfills. Mad Radish in Ontario told The Loop in a statement that they make sure all PLA containers disposed of in their stores are sent to appropriate processing plants with the facilities to break them down.
THE BOTTOM LINE
For now, all those biodegradable plastics need to head straight to your garbage bin. The plus side is: they might biodegrade in a landfill (though the sun and heat conditions need to be optimal) and at least they weren’t as toxic as the alternative to make.
In the future, we might be able to process these plastics, but they need to be very clearly labeled and systems need to be put in place to dispose of them responsibly.