In this article, it shall be explored how effective it is to opt for biodegradable plastic bags. Other topics covered include:
- What are biodegradable plastic bags?
- How are biodegradable plastic bags made?
- What is biodegradability and why is it important?
- Are biodegradable plastic bags 100% safe?
- What are the benefits of biodegradable plastic bags?
- How can biodegradable plastic bags be improved in future?
How effective is it to use biodegradable plastic bags?
The use of biodegradable plastic bags is quite effective in comparison to conventional plastic bags. While conventional plastic bags take hundreds of years to degrade; biodegradable plastic bags may degrade in a span of some months to a few years.
Other than that, biodegradable plastic bags also offer other environmental advantages including fewer medical complications, less toxicity, decreased species endangerment, and less pollution.
What are biodegradable plastic bags?
Biodegradable plastic bags, as the name suggests, are plastic bags which can be degraded in a short span of time. This means that such bags are made from natural materials instead of synthetic materials.
Biodegradable plastic bags are usually made from natural materials such as wheat, sugar cane, and cornstarch and therefore they can be degraded by mother nature.
On the contrary, conventional plastic bags are made from those polymers that can not be degraded by nature and may take more than 400 years to degrade. This is chiefly because the structure of these polymers makes it impossible for microbes to break them down.
The story of biodegradable plastic bags originated with the invention of conventional plastic bags and their increased use, primarily after the industrialisation era.
With the advent of increased industrialisation, consumerism, and urbanisation; unimaginable amounts of plastic bags were used and consumed causing almost equal negative impacts on life, health and the environment.
The use of conventional plastic bags has caused an immense impact on the environment. Plastic bags are converted into microplastic by the action of sunlight and other drivers that cause the death of organisms by entering their bodies.
Research reveals that more than 700 species have been affected by conventional plastic bags on land alone. The figures in the case of life in water are rather ambiguous given the fact that science has not explored all the aquatic species but plastics have reached unexplored depths of oceans.
How are biodegradable plastic bags made?
Biodegradable plastic bags are made from natural materials such as wheat, sugar cane or cornstarch. These plastics are made by converting sugars present in the plants into plastics.
The source of this sugar can be sugar cane, sugar beets, wheat, and potatoes. This selection varies from region to region depending upon the availability.
Generally, there are two types of biodegradable plastics that are produced. These are PHA (Polyhydroxyalkanoate) and PLA (Polyactideacid).
Since these biodegradable plastics are made from natural materials, they can degrade in a short span of time as compared to conventional plastic bags that may require hundreds of years to degrade.
What is biodegradability and why is it important?
Biodegradability is the ability to be degraded by the action of microbes under the right conditions. It is a natural process of discarding waste because otherwise, the accumulation of waste will affect the environment.
Natural substances such as plant-based or animal-based products are readily biodegradable; however, synthetic products that are man-made do not generally gel well with the biodegradability process.
This is largely because the structure of these synthetic products makes them unfit for microbes to degrade. As a result, they persist in the environment and cause negative impacts.
Among these negative impacts, there are species endangerment, soil toxication, pollution of the aquatic environment, depletion of oxygen reserves, and health risks to humans.
Biodegradability is a matter of high importance because we currently face a grave situation in terms of environmental health which is expected to further exacerbate with time. The current population stands at 8 billion which is expected to increase to 11 billion by 2100.
More population means more waste production and a need for better waste management. However, the situation already is quite despondent let alone meet the future needs. The current waste production stands at 2 billion tons globally which is expected to increase exponentially.
Even now, as much as 40% of the waste generated is exposed to open dumps and not given proper treatment.
In this situation, the need for biodegradable products has become extremely important. Because otherwise, there is no way out for humans to sustain on the earth, let alone thrive.
Why are biodegradable plastic bags important?
Biodegradable plastic bags are important because the use of conventional plastic bags causes a lot of strain on the environment. It is estimated that more than 40% of the plastic produced is subjected to single-time use only.
If conventional plastic bags are not replaced with biodegradable plastic bags, the situation can become really dark. The plastics that are conventionally used affect as many as 700 species of animals.
These plastics also cause numerous medical complications such as cancers, skin diseases, infertility, stomach disorders, and neurodevelopmental disorders.
As much as 8 million tons of plastic enter the seas and oceans and affect life therein. This plastic is converted to microplastic by the action of sunlight and water waves. These small microplastics enter the bodies of fishes and infiltrate food webs at various levels.
Research reveals that more than 40 percent of plastics are subjected to single-use (used for a few minutes to some hours) yet it takes more than 400 years to degrade them.
Therefore, it is very important to shift to biodegradable plastic so that these impacts on the environment and life are avoided, making us one step closer to sustainability.
Are biodegradable plastic bags 100% safe?
No, biodegradable plastics are not entirely safe and healthy for the environment. To be able to understand this, you need to know the difference between eco-friendly and degradable.
It is important to note that being biodegradable does not necessarily mean eco-friendly because biodegradable material can still harm the environment based on factors such as how it is used, consumed and disposed of.
For example, although biodegradable plastic bags are made from natural materials, their increased demands will cause stress on the agricultural activity of the region (since biodegradable plastic bags are made from plant-based sources like sugar cane, wheat or sugar beets).
More agricultural activity means greater stress on resources such as water use and land availability. Other than that, food production and food safety concerns will also rise.
Another factor that reiterates why biodegradable does not mean eco-friendly is the way a material is disposed of. If any biodegradable material is not disposed of rightly, it will still cause harm to the environment,
For example, if biodegradable plastic bags are dumped in open dumps instead of landfills, they still can endanger life nearby by entanglement.
Although biodegradable plastic bags are degradable and do not require hundreds of years to degrade; the situation is not that encouraging after all.
As per the most recent research, biodegradable plastic bags also may take up to three years before they are fully degraded. This implies that improper disposal would pose a threat for as long as three years.
Therefore, it is important to be mindful that only because plastic bags are biodegradable, it does not necessarily imply that they are absolutely environmentally friendly.
We as consumers need to make the right sustainable choices and be environmentally considerate in our use of consumer products.
What are some benefits of biodegradable plastic bags over conventional plastic bags?
Biodegradable plastic bags have a number of advantages over conventional bags. These advantages include:
- Fewer carbon emissions
- Waste Reduction
- Better waste management
- Better recycling
- Reduced pollution
- Reduced toxicity in the environment
- Lesser species endangerment
- Decreased use of petroleum
- Decreased health risks
The overall production and use of biodegradable plastic bags come with a number of advantages to life, health and the environment.
The biodegradable plastic bags are produced in a way that decreases carbon emissions hence, reducing the overall carbon footprint. It is an established fact that there is a direct relationship between carbon emissions and sustainability.
Since biodegradable plastic bags can degrade and do not require hundreds of years, more plastic bags mean lesser waste produced. This decreased waste production makes it easier for authorities to manage waste and lessens the burden on landfills.
Biodegradable plastic bags because of their natural materials are better off in the recycling process. This is largely because of the oil that comes from plant-based materials that make plastic bags less brittle and hence, a better fit for recycling.
Biodegradable plastic bags do not pollute the environment because they do not persist indefinitely. However, proper usage and disposal practices are somewhat incumbent to checklist this advantage.
Biodegradable plastic bag production requires the use of less petroleum. Since traditional plastic bags require heating for the formation of polymers, the traditional methods cause strain on the non-renewable resources too while damaging the environment.
The absence of any harmful chemicals in biodegradable plastic bags earns them another advantage of being risk-free in terms of diseases and maladies. Otherwise, plastic bags are linked with a number of medical complications.
These medical complications may include cancers, skin diseases, infertility, stomach disorders, and neurodevelopmental disorders.
Can biodegradable plastic bags be further improved in future?
Yes, even though biodegradable plastic bags are innovative and sustainable, there is still a lot of room for improvement.
The real challenge for the future is to shift from food sources like wheat or sugar cane to non-food sources such as switchgrass. In this way, the food security concerns related to bioplastic manufacturing will be alleviated and addressed.
Another improvement foreseen by scientists is that the production process of biodegradable plastic should also be sustainable; that it biodegradable plastics should be made from renewable resources rather than non-renewable resources, which is the current situation.
It is concluded that the use of biodegradable plastic bags is quite effective in comparison to conventional plastic bags. It is because the former may degrade in a few years whereas the latter may take more than 400 years.
Other than the problem of degradability, the factors such as product use and disposal practices are also important determinants that determine the effectiveness of biodegradable plastic bags.
Frequently Asked Questions: How effective is it to use biodegradable plastic bags?
How long does it take for biodegradable bags to degrade?
As per some research, biodegradable bags may degrade in about six months. However, as per recent research, they may take up to 3 years.
Are biodegradable plastic bags 100% safe?
Biodegradable plastic bags are not 100% safe to use because they also may take up to 3 years to biodegrade. During this time, they pose a threat to the environment. Therefore, sustainable use of consumer products is asserted as first priority.
- Laville, Sandra. (April 29, 2019). Biodegradable plastic bags survive three years in soil and sea. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/apr/29/biodegradable-plastic-bags-survive-three-years-in-soil-and-sea
- Washam, Cynthia. (2010). Plastics. Retrieved from: https://www.acs.org/content/dam/acsorg/education/resources/highschool/chemmatters/videos/chemmatters-april2010-bioplastics.pdf
- Dilkes-Hoffman, L. S., Pratt, S., Lant, P. A., & Laycock, B. (2019). The role of biodegradable plastic in solving plastic solid waste accumulation. In Plastics to energy (pp. 469-505). William Andrew Publishing.