Though the terms “compostable”, “bioplastics”, and “oxo-degradative plastics” are often used in place of “biodegradable plastics”, these terms are not synonymous. The waste management infrastructure currently recycles regular plastic waste, incinerates it, or places it in a landfill. Mixing biodegradable plastics into the regular waste infrastructure poses some dangers to the environment. Thus, it is crucial to identify how to correctly decompose alternative plastic materials.
Both compostable plastics and biodegradable plastics are materials that break down into their organic constituents; however, composting of some compostable plastics requires strict control of environmental factors, including higher temperatures, pressure and nutrient concentration, as well as specific chemical ratios. These conditions can only be recreated in industrial composting plants, which are few and far between. Thus, some plastics that are compostable can degrade only under highly controlled environments. Additionally, composting typically takes place in aerobic environments, while biodegradation may take place in anaerobic environments. That is, biologically-based polymers, sourced from non-fossil materials, decompose naturally in the environment. Whereas some bioplastics, made of biologically degradable polymers, require the assistance of aneaerobic digesters or composting units to break down synthetic material during organic recycling processes.
Contrary to popular belief, non-biodegradable compostable plastics do indeed exist. These plastics will undergo biodegradation under composting conditions but will not begin degrading until they are met. In other words, these plastics cannot be claimed as “biodegradable” (as defined by both American and European Standards) due to the fact that they cannot biodegrade naturally in the biosphere. An example of a non-biodegradable compostable plastic is polylactic acid (PLA).
The ASTM standard definition outlines that a compostable plastic has to become "not visually distinguishable" at the same rate as something that has already been established as being compostable under the traditional definition.
A plastic is considered a bioplastic if it was produced partly or wholly with biologically sourced polymers. A plastic is considered biodegradable if it can degrade into water, carbon dioxide, and biomass in a given time frame (dependent on different standards). Thus, the terms are not synonymous. Not all bioplastics are biodegradable. An example of a non-biodegradable bioplastic is bio-based PET. PET is a petrochemical plastic, derived from fossil fuels. Bio-based PET is the same petrochemical plastic however it is synthesized with bacteria. Bio-based PET has identical technical properties to its fossil-based counterpart.
In addition, oxo-degradable plastics are commonly perceived to be biodegradable. However, they are simply conventional plastics with additives called prodegredants that accelerate the oxidation process. While oxo-degradable plastics rapidly break down through exposure to sunlight and oxygen, they persist as huge quantities of microplastics rather than any biological material.
All materials are inherently biodegradable, whether it takes a few weeks or a million years to break down into organic matter and mineralize. Therefore, products that are classified as “biodegradable” but whose time and environmental constraints are not explicitly stated are misinforming consumers and lack transparency. Normally, credible companies convey the specific biodegradable conditions of their products, highlighting that their products are in fact biodegradable under national or international standards. Additionally, companies that label plastics with oxo-biodegradable additives as entirely biodegradable contribute to misinformation. Similarly, some brands may claim that their plastics are biodegradable when, in fact, they are non-biodegradable bioplastics.
Microbial degradation: The primary purpose of biodegradable plastics is to replace traditional plastics that persist in landfills and harm the environment. Therefore, the ability of microorganisms to break down these plastics is an incredible environmental advantage. Microbial degradation is accomplished by 3 steps: colonization of the plastic surface, hydrolysis, and mineralization. First, microorganisms populate the exposed plastics. Next, the bacteria secrete enzymes that bind to the carbon source or polymer substrates and then split the hydrocarbon bonds. The process results in the production of H2O and CO2. Despite the release of CO2 into the environment, biodegradable plastics leave a smaller footprint than petroleum-based plastics that accumulate in landfills and cause heavy pollution, which is why they are explored as alternatives to traditional plastics.
Municipal solid waste: According to a 2010 report of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the US had 31 million tons of plastic waste, representing 12.4% of all municipal solid waste. Of that, 2.55 million tons were recovered. This 8.2% recovery was much less than the 34.1% overall recovery percentage for municipal solid waste.
Depressed plastics recovery rates can be attributed to conventional plastics are often commingled with organic wastes (food scraps, wet paper, and liquids), leading to accumulation of waste in landfills and natural habitats. On the other hand, composting of these mixed organics (food scraps, yard trimmings, and wet, non-recyclable paper) is a potential strategy for recovering large quantities of waste and dramatically increasing community recycling goals. As of 2015, food scraps and wet, non-recyclable paper respectively comprise 39.6 million and 67.9 million tons of municipal solid waste.
Biodegradable plastics can replace the non-degradable plastics in these waste streams, making municipal composting a significant tool to divert large amounts of otherwise nonrecoverable waste from landfills. Compostable plastics combine the utility of plastics (lightweight, resistance, relative low cost) with the ability to completely and fully compost in an industrial compost facility. Rather than worrying about recycling a relatively small quantity of commingled plastics, proponents argue that certified biodegradable plastics can be readily commingled with other organic wastes, thereby enabling composting of a much larger portion of nonrecoverable solid waste.
Commercial composting for all mixed organics then becomes commercially viable and economically sustainable. More municipalities can divert significant quantities of waste from overburdened landfills since the entire waste stream is now biodegradable and therefore easier to process. This move away from the use of landfills may help alleviate the issue of plastic pollution.
The use of biodegradable plastics, therefore, is seen as enabling the complete recovery of large quantities of municipal solid waste (via aerobic composting and feedstocks) that have heretofore been unrecoverable by other means except land filling or incineration.
Oxo-biodegradation: There are allegations that biodegradable plastic bags may release metals, and may require a great deal of time to degrade in certain circumstances and that OBD (oxo-biodegradable) plastics may produce tiny fragments of plastic that do not continue to degrade at any appreciable rate regardless of the environment. The response of the Oxo-biodegradable Plastics Association (www.biodeg.org) is that OBD plastics do not contain metals. They contain salts of metals, which are not prohibited by legislation and are in fact necessary as trace-elements in the human diet. Oxo-biodegradation of polymer material has been studied in depth at the Technical Research Institute of Sweden and the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. A peer-reviewed report of the work shows 91% biodegradation in a soil environment within 24 months, when tested in accordance with ISO 17556.
Effect on food supply: There is also much debate about the total carbon, fossil fuel and water usage in manufacturing biodegradable bioplastics from natural materials and whether they are a negative impact to human food supply. To make 1 kg (2.2 lb) of polylactic acid, the most common commercially available compostable plastic, 2.65 kg (5.8 lb) of corn is required. Since as of 2010, approximately 270 million tonnes of plastic are made every year, replacing conventional plastic with corn-derived polylactic acid would remove 715.5 million tonnes from the world's food supply, at a time when global warming is reducing tropical farm productivity.
Methane release: There is concern that another greenhouse gas, methane, might be released when any biodegradable material, including truly biodegradable plastics, degrades in an anaerobic landfill environment. Methane production from 594 managed landfill environments is captured and used for energy; some landfills burn this off through a process called flaring to reduce the release of methane into the environment. In the US, most landfilled materials today go into landfills where they capture the methane biogas for use in clean, inexpensive energy. Incinerating non-biodegradable plastics will release carbon dioxide as well. Disposing of non-biodegradable plastics made from natural materials in anaerobic (landfill) environments will result in the plastic lasting for hundreds of years.
Biodegradation in the ocean: Biodegradable plastics that have not fully degraded are disposed of in the oceans by waste management facilities with the assumption that the plastics will eventually break down in a short amount of time. However, the ocean is not optimal for biodegradation, as the process favors warm environments with an abundance of microorganisms and oxygen. Remaining microfibers that have not undergone biodegradation can cause harm to marine life.