Is biodegradable plastic edible? (5 examples of edible-biodegradable products)

In this article, it shall be sought whether biodegradable plastics are edible or not. Various other topics shall also be explained that are linked to the primary topic.

  • What is biodegradability?
  • Why should plastic be biodegradable?
  • What is biodegradable plastic?
  • Is biodegradable plastic eco-friendly?
  • What is edible material?
  • Is biodegradable plastic edible?
  • Are all biodegradable plastic not edible?
  • FAQs

Is biodegradable plastic edible?

No, biodegradable plastic is not edible even though it is made from plant-based materials including cornstarch and sugar cane. 

This is because biodegradable plastic is not meant to be eaten and hence is not manufactured in compliance with the relevant health standards. 

The other reason why biodegradable plastic is not edible is that it may also, very likely contain, additives which may be harmful to human health. These plastics also are of negligible nutritional value.

What is biodegradability?

Biodegradability can be explained as the ability to be degraded in nature so that complex substances can be converted into simpler substances so that they may become a part of nature. 

Biodegradability is the earth’s natural way to discard and dispose of. Microbes such as bacteria and other decomposers are the main drivers of this degradation process. 

If the natural process of biodegradation is not happening, then it means that wastes are produced and not disposed of. Imagine what would happen if all the waste of your home is kept inside and not thrown in the dust bin?

It will pollute your house from the inside, right? The same would happen if the natural process of biodegradation does not happen for some reason. However, this hypothetical metaphor does have some ground reality, unfortunately.

Not all the material produced is able to biodegrade in nature. Most of the man-made synthetic materials (such as polymers) do not gel well with the microbes’ ability to degrade and thus these substances remain in the environment causing unfathomable pollution and problems. 

With the human population swiftly advancing to cross the carrying capacity of the earth, the management of waste is becoming more difficult than ever. That is why the checklist of if any substance is biodegradable or not is of high importance because otherwise, there is no way out. 

To put things into perspective, take an example of non-biodegradable plastics. These plastics affect hundreds of species, endangering them. They also stem medical complications of all severities. The environmental impacts of plastics are also notoriously well known. 

Why should plastics be biodegradable? 

Plastic is a very important example of non-biodegradable waste and perhaps the most significant too. The issue of plastic contamination and plastic accumulation has taken the entire world into its grip.

The use of plastic dates back to the start of the 20th century; however, the use was increased by manifolds after the second world war. The world recognised the importance of plastic as its uses ranged in all fields and all sciences. 

With increased consumerism, more plastic started to be used or perhaps misused. It is cited that a single plastic bag may be used for a span of some minutes to several hours yet it takes almost forever to degrade it. 

Regardless of the negative impacts of plastic, it is still used in many parts of the world largely because it is cheap and is of good use. Statistics reveal that single-use plastics amount to almost half of the total plastics production. 

As per the stats, the production of plastic is expected to rise to up to 1000 million tons by as early as 2050. However, this production figure was less than 3 million back in the 1950s. This exemplifies the extreme misuse of plastic. 

This increased use does a lot of harm to the environment at all levels. Much plastic (around 8 million tons every year) ends up in the oceans which leads to the death of millions of aquatic animals and thus disrupts the food chains. 

The plastic that ends up in the seas and oceans is converted to microplastic by sunlight, wind and water waves. This microplastic is accumulated in literally every corner of the world. It may be reiterated that plastics may take more than 400 years to break down. 

It is reported that as many as 700 species have been affected by plastic either through consumption or entanglement. The consumption of plastic results in the death of animals. The consumption of plastics also causes liver damage and reproductive complications in animals.  

What is biodegradable plastic? 

Biodegradable plastics are made from naturally occurring substances that may include plants such as cornstarch or sugar cane. Since these bio-based plastics are sourced from nature, they can biodegrade to become a part of nature again. 

The story of biodegradable plastic originated after the invention of conventional plastic and its increased use, primarily after the industrialisation era. This increase in use caused great harm to many aspects of life and the environment. 

With the advent of increased industrialisation, consumerism, and urbanisation; unimaginable amounts of plastic were used and consumed causing almost equal negative impacts on life, health and the environment. 

The use of conventional plastic has caused an immense impact on the environment. Plastic is 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 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.

Biodegradable plastics 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.

Are biodegradable plastics actually eco-friendly? 

Although science has established that biodegradable plastics can degrade as compared to conventional plastics which may persist for more than 400 years. 

However, being biodegradable does not mean that plastics are eco-friendly as well. The way plastic is used and disposed of is very important in determining if plastic is eco-friendly or not. 

A good example can be increased plastic use. If plastic is used in unsustainable amounts, it implies that the pressure on the source from where bioplastics are made is increased. 

This would lead to the use of more land in a rather unsustainable way. This would also lead to greater use of agrochemicals including fertilisers and pesticides to meet the growing needs. 

Further, if plastic is not disposed of rightly, it will still cause harm despite being biodegradable. Let us say, biodegradable plastic is dumped in an open dump. In this case, biodegradable plastic can still cause loss of life by entering the bodies of animals. 

As per recent studies and life-cycle-assessment of bioplastics, it is found out bioplastics are significantly toxic to the environment because of the presence of harmful chemicals. 

What is edible?

A material or substance is termed as edible when it can be eaten by humans. By being eaten, it is not only a matter of theatricality but also logic and science. 

For example, it is theoretically possible to eat cotton because cotton is a plant-based natural material. But the real question remains, is it logical? Of Course not. 

For a substance to be edible, it should have nutritional value. It should be made in compliance with basic health standards and parameters to make sure that no harm to human health is caused. 

Importantly, for a substance to be edible, it also should be free of any harmful chemicals or synthetic materials. In our example of cotton, cotton usually is dyed with synthetic colours which makes the consumption of cotton insensible. 

Is biodegradable plastic edible?

Although biodegradable plastic is made from natural substances like cornstarch or sugar cane, you can not eat biodegradable plastic. 

This is because biodegradable plastic does not meet the standard requirements of being edible that have been discussed in the previous sections.

Biodegradable plastics are not made to be eaten but to be degraded. Hence, no compliance with health standards is kept in view in making biodegradable plastic. Further, there is also no significant nutritional value in biodegradable plastic. 

An important reason for bioplastics being not edible is that most of these plastics contain various additives and additional chemicals to meet the required functions. 

These additives certainly do not gel well with the human digestive system and may lead to many health issues of varying severity. 

Are all biodegradable materials not edible? (5 examples of edible materials which are biodegradable too) 

No, some biodegradable materials are particularly manufactured and designed to be edible so that waste generation is decreased. However, these materials are particularly made to be eaten, unlike bioplastics. An example can be edible food packaging. 

Edible packaging, as the name suggests, is a type of packaging that is verged on the principles of eco-friendliness and sustainability. 

This edible packaging is basically designed to meet the rising waste management challenges because edible packaging simply implies no waste production at all. 

Edible packaging is made from plant-based materials. Another major reason behind the occurrence of edible packaging is that the food industry is well-known for its large amount of waste generation.

Ice creams are perhaps one of the very first examples of edible packaging. You eat the ice cream but you eat the cone as well in which ice cream is kept. 

Other examples of edible packaging include:

  • Edible coffee cups 
  • Edible straws 
  • Edible spoons
  • Edible drink pouches 
  • Edible food films

All these materials are made from natural and plant sources and hence are both biodegradable and edible. These examples also preach that there is still a lot to be done by us in our pledge towards a sustainable future. 

Conclusion

It is concluded that biodegradable plastic is not edible even though it is made from plant-based materials including cornstarch and sugar cane. 

This is because biodegradable plastic is not meant to be eaten and hence is not manufactured in compliance with the relevant health standards. 

The other reason why biodegradable plastic is not edible is that it may also, very likely contain, additives which may be harmful to human health. These plastics also are of negligible nutritional value.

Frequently Asked Questions: Is biodegradable plastic edible?

How long does it take for biodegradable plastic to degrade?

Biodegradable plastic degrades in a shorter span of time. As per some studies, it may degrade in 5 months. Recent studies have revealed that biodegradable plastic may take up to 3 years to degrade. 

How much bioplastic is better than conventional plastic?

In terms of degradation, bioplastic may degrade in 5 months to 3 years while conventional plastic may take more than 400 years. However, in terms of toxicity, recent research and LCA reveal that bioplastics are as toxic as conventional plastics. 

References

  • Petkoska, A. T., Daniloski, D., D’Cunha, N. M., Naumovski, N., & Broach, A. T. (2021). Edible packaging: Sustainable solutions and novel trends in food packaging. Food Research International, 140, 109981.
  • Atiwesh, G., Mikhael, A., Parrish, C. C., Banoub, J., & Le, T. A. T. (2021). Environmental impact of bioplastic use: A review. Heliyon, 7(9), e07918.

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