There are too many things labeled ‘Biodegradable’!
What does the term ‘biodegradable’ actually mean? Where do things biodegrade? How long is the process? Since we specialize in making plastic biodegradable, I am going to unpack this for the curious-minded greenies out there. Lets go to the polls!!
In the words of Steve Harvey or Al Borlan from Home Improvement (depending on which era you watched the Family Feud)….Survey says!……Well….the survey was all over the place because people in general are just outright confused about the whole topic….72% of people believe things biodegrade in a landfill and 45% of people believe it will happen under 5 years. 17% of people said they were unsure and .7% refused to read it. Yet over 80% of people said it happens in a natural environment or your ‘back yard’….. So here are some definitions and my best shot at clarifying all of this.
Biodegradable simply means able to be decomposed by bacteria or other living things. Simple enough….banana = biodegradable, plastic cup = not biodegradable. But is this true? Actually its not. Everything is biodegradable eventually, and some companies use this fact to trick the consumer. But for the sake of keeping things simple, lets pretend plastic is not biodegradable.
The reason banana’s are biodegradable and plastic cups are not is basically because of the composition of these materials. Bananas are a natural. The bacteria that decompose the banana or turn an apple brown the minute you bite into it, are adapted to attack the type of bonds. They have been doing this for millions of years. Plastic is not a simple bond. The material that makes plastic is heated with a catalyst and it creates a very strong carbon bond. Basically this reaction is what makes plastic strong and waterproof….and in turn bacteria proof. The bacteria can’t process the strong carbon bonds and now when you pound back a frosty one and toss that cup into the trash, the landfill is it’s permanent home….for the next thousand years!
This brings me to the next question…..Where do things biodegrade? There are a few things that make a perfect ‘soup’ for things to biodegrade. Temperature: the ideal temperature is between 10 and 35 degrees celsius. Moisture: you need it! Bacteria: you need it! Some environments are better than others. For instance, a banana will biodegrade quicker in a warm swamp than up in Northern Canada….shout out! So the real question here is ‘do biodegradable materials biodegrade in landfills’? Landfills are designed for garbage, in which approx. 50% is organic matter. They are lined with a plastic film to keep the dirty garbage juices from leeching into the soil. They pipe the dirty juices back through the landfill, creating the two ideal environments i explained above… Temperature and moisture. As organic matter oxidizes, it creates heat (just go stick your hand into an old grass pile from a lawnmower and see how that feels….its hot!). Add to this heat the moisture from all the garbage juices and you have a pretty nice, bacteria swamp water for things to decay.
And finally, how long is the process? Well that all depends on what is biodegrading. Given enough time, bacteria can chew through almost anything. Organic material can biodegrade very quickly….often weeks or months. Other not-so-natural materials can take much longer. We humans are really good at making tough stuff. Plastic is one of them. It gets a bad rap because of the mess we have made with it, but just think about it for a second. Where would be without it? No space program, no cell phones, computers, modern medicine wouldn’t be modern, no lulu lemon anything, your shoes would definitely not be Nike’s and if you have high cholesterol you better eat some kale and get on a treadmill, because an angioplasty doesn’t work without the ‘plasty’! (Thats the little balloon they use in your artery to clear the blockage).
I bet most people don’t even know that 98% of all clothing and fabric will be made with synthetics in the near future. Heck….your grandpa probably sported a polyester suit in the 50’s. Even back then clothing wasn’t natural. The graph on the left shows the trend and if you think plastic bags are a problem, think about the shirt on your back! Its a good thing we are working with 2 of the largest fabric spinners on planet earth and hopefully one day soon we will be able to prevent a landfill disaster even larger than the plastic bag dilemma. Check out this article about plastic clothing…very interesting!!
The bottom line is that the survey was pretty bang on. Things DO biodegrade in landfills, in general it will happen under 5 years as long as its organic, and the 17% had a right to be unsure.
I want to leave you with this thought…..i love innovation…..who doesn’t? It’s the reason Shark Tank and Dragon’s Den are such popular T.V. shows. Human ingenuity at its best, creating a more efficient way to do things, better products for more convenience…faster ways to do things or just cool inventions….. And plastic is one of mankind’s greatest inventions. But we need to be responsible with it.
Below is a list of items and the time it takes for these things to biodegrade. Of the list of 23 items below, 14 of them are made of natural materials. The other 9 items can ALL be made with Change Plastic for Good. This is us being responsible with plastic. We NEED to make changes in order to fix the mess we have created and prevent future messes. Governments are working on climate change, animal activists are fighting illegal whaling and killing of sharks, good hearted volunteers help clean up the shorelines of rubbish, oil spills and plastic waste….but what about the billions of tones of plastic we generate each year?? We have to tackle the problem with a biochemistry solution and add one more bullet to the solution chamber. Join us in our movement to pressure businesses, governments and consumers to adopt a better solution to plastic waste.