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Recycling plastic versus biodegradable plastic

There’s a lot you can do in 12 minutes. Unfortunately, it’s also the average time a plastic bag is used before it’s sent to landfill. Following its uneventful 12-minute lifespan, that plastic bag could remain on the planet for up to 1,000 years.  Miguel Campos, export sales manager of packaging manufacturer Advanta, explores new biodegradable plastics and how they will impact the waste landscape.

 

We’ve all heard about the impact plastic waste has on the environment. Plastic’s notoriety could be responsible for an uptake in household recycling; rising from 30.9 per cent in 2008 to 43.2 per cent in 2018.

 

Many of us recycle, but almost half of us have had disagreements about what type of material we can put in each bin, according to a ComRes poll for the BBC. And the confusion doesn’t stop there. Because recycling is managed locally, each council collects its plastic recycling differently, meaning some areas have better resources than others.

 

Two thirds of the plastic waste used by consumers cannot be recycled at all. Of the third that can, 70 per cent ends up in landfill, oceans or is incinerated, leading to the release of devastatingly harmful toxins into the environment. Clearly, there’s some misinformation about the type of materials that we can recycle, but what can be done to clear the air?

 

There are seven recycling symbols on plastic packaging — supposedly providing a clear way of being able to differentiate between the types of plastic and where they should be recycled. Out of the seven types of plastic, only polypropylene, such as bottle caps, and PET, such as soft drink bottles, have the potential to be recycled.

 

Despite their recyclability, these plastics are rarely accepted at recyclers. Recycling plastic is a long and laborious process due to the variety of quality and material types. The other issue is the relatively low value of recycling plastics; as oil prices fluctuate, so too does the price of plastic. When those markets are depressed, virgin plastic becomes far cheaper to buy than recycled.

 

While there’s certainly scope for improving the plastics recycling process, it is simply unsustainable. Even if plastics were easily and infinitely recyclable, the material is still manufactured from crude oil, often obtained by methods such as fracking, one of the most environmentally damaging processes in existence, which produces carbon emissions and contaminates the surrounding areas.

 

So, what’s the alternative?

 

Biodegradable plastics have been hailed as plastics that degrade naturally in the environment — but it’s not that simple. Under proper conditions, some biodegradable plastics can degrade to a point where microorganisms can completely metabolise them to carbon dioxide and water.

 

However, many biodegradable plastics only fragment, rather than biodegrade due to the addition of oxidising agents. By fragmenting rather than degrading, they break into small pieces which can then pollute soils, increase ingestion for animals, and end up in our oceans and waterways.

 

In fact, the prefix “bio” can be very misleading; plastics do degrade, but not into something biological — it breaks into smaller and smaller pieces of plastic.

 

In the right environment, a commercial composting facility for example, biodegradable plastics should decompose in a matter of three to six months. However, a recent study by the University of Plymouth showed that biodegradable bags were still able to carry groceries after being exposed to the elements for three years. Although they may be better for the environment than single-use plastics, they are still not a viable solution.

 

Recycling plastic is not and never will be the sole solution. We need to massively improve and invest in recycling infrastructure. However, with the value of plastic plummeting, we must turn to more valuable materials to fund this progress.

 

Aluminium is the most valuable and recyclable material that is currently produced. It holds its value so well, that it pays for its own recycling and subsidises that of other materials, such as plastic. Unlike the disappointing 12-minute lifespan of an average plastic bag, aluminium can be endlessly recycled, significantly reducing the amount that we produce and use

 

We cannot expect an overnight switch from single-use plastics, but it is clear that so-called biodegradable plastic isn’t the most suitable alternative. At Advanta, we believe the future is aluminium.

 

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