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I’m sure you’ve heard a lot of these terms already in reference to new, bio based materials – from plastic to: “biodegradable”, “compostable” or maybe even “home compostable”. There are even more! They are all bioplastics, meaning they are a man-made material. But as opposed to plastic, (which is a synthetic or semi-synthetic material that usually uses polymers as a main ingredient. So basically made from different combinations of petrochemicals). Bioplastics are biodegradable, but in a different way.
This man-made material is soft and easy to turn into many different forms during manufacture. Therefore it can be used for a million and one things to make our life more comfortable. All different synthetic plastics have one two things in common. The first, as I mentioned, is that they are made of polymers, which are long molecules built around chains of carbon atoms.
The second, is that they practically never find their way back to their original form. So that they need an estimated 400 years+ to break down. This means that literally all the plastic humans created since the 1950’s when plastics became mainstream are still somewhere on our planet. Some of them can be recycled. But less than fifth of plastics actually get recycled globally and plastics are not indefinitely recyclable.
And so, they will be incinerated, left to rot in landfill and add to the 18 billion pounds of plastic waste that flows into the oceans every year from coastal regions.
In the last few years though, as we become increasingly aware of this huge problem (even though we always knew it, it just caught up with us), there are lots of efforts to create new materials that break down faster, easier and without harming nature – whilst maintaining the convenience element of regular plastics.
These new bioplastics however, are not regulated so people don’t really know what to do with them. You buy the item which states that it is better for the environment. But you don’t know and have no control over what happens after you have discarded that bioplastic packaging.
I personally believe that the future is not only reusables but also cleverly designed, modern bioplastics, that are correctly regulated, and independently certified to recognised standards.
In this post I will list the difference between the most commonly used bioplastics.
When you see this label, you can expect that, given the right conditions and presence of microorganisms, fungi, or bacteria, the material will eventually break down to its basic components, leaving no toxins behind or creating no toxins during this process.
However (and this is the tricky part for the user), products that will biodegrade in nature or in compost may not biodegrade in landfills. Firstly, because they are covered in a plastic bin bag. And secondly because there’s not enough bacteria, light, and water to move the process along.
This means that the bioplastic is made from plant based materials, like starch, wood pulp, bamboo and kraft paper. They break down into materials such as water, oxygen and compost. Compostable bioplastics are best used for food packaging. So they can get mixed into food waste and go to the compost.
For anything to be legally labelled compostable, it has to have been certified to break down in industrial (council) composting facilities within 180 days.
According to current EU law, all certified compostable packaging is, by default, biodegradable. In contrast, not all biodegradable products can be considered compostable.
Not all compostable plastics can be put on your compost heap at home. Some need industrial or local authority composters. This is because they need higher temperatures and humidity to break down and a home compost heap can’t produce that. Home composting is usually slower than commercial, or industrial, composting. At home, it can take a few months to two years depending on the contents of the pile and composting conditions.
Natureflex is the new kid on the block and might be the next big thing. It is wood pulp made into airtight, transparent packaging. So the end product is both biodegradable and compostable. Plus – you can compost it at home.