On replacing single-use plastic with so-called biodegradable ones?


Date of publication 4 May 2020

Authors Viera, João S.C.; Marques, Mônica R.C.; Nazareth, Monick Cruz; Jimenez, Paula Christine; Castro, Ítalo Braga.

Sources On replacing single-use plastic with so-called biodegradable ones: The case with straws (2020) Environmental Science & Policy : 106, 177–181.

DOILink https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envsci.2020.02.007



Plastic pollution is a global environmental concern and several approaches have been implemented seeking to reduce and control releases of plastic waste, especially in marine environments. Recently, disclosure of data on occurrence of single-use plastic straws among the litter collected in beach cleaning campaigns unleashed a worldwide movement that resulted on banning of these items in several countries.

The market then quickly began to offer sustainable solutions as the professed biodegradable plastic straws. However, cases of green-washing added to current limitations related to the technical standards used to attest biodegradability of commercial plastic products may lead these measures to be largely ineffective. Herein, a case study assessing the composition of plastic straws marketed in Brazil and United States under false claims of biodegradability was used as background for discussion of this neglected issue, which goes far beyond plastics straws. Indeed, analyses have shown that the majority of straws collected in this study are made of non-biodegradable conventional petrochemical polymers (PE, PP).

Thus, although some local regulations have already banned single-use plastic products, additional actions in regional and global scales should be implemented, especially concerning proper labelling of the alleged biodegradable products.

Considering the resistance of the powerful plastic industry, multiple management strategies focused on educating people in the matters of deciding purchases based on correct labelling and properly discarding the waste, are possibly our best chance to drive a positive global environmental change. Additionally, the authors also suggest the inclusion of this relevant subject among the tasks proposed by the Basel Convention Partnership on Plastic Waste.

The SeaCleaners’ View :

Global awareness
The waste collections on beaches are mobilizing more and more citizens around the planet. This has the effect of making data on the density of plastic pollution and the types of objects most frequently found in waste more “tangible” for the general public. It turns out that single-use plastics are among the “top ten” debris observed. Among these, straws used for drinks have caught the attention of consumers, as they are objects with a very short usage time of a few minutes and are produced in huge quantities worldwide. According to National Geographic, 500 million straws are used every day. If placed end to end, they form a line that goes around the Earth more than twice every day. In 4 days, this line stretches from the Earth to the moon… In response to this consumer awareness, legislation banning single-use plastics has been implemented in many countries.

The response of the industry
Faced with these new regulations, the manufacturers of the plastics industry have asked for deadlines for implementation in order to develop technical solutions. However, consumers did not wait for the coming into force of these regulations to change their behaviour which unfortunately is not to avoid using straws, but to choose supposedly sustainable alternatives: reusable straws or straws made of biodegradable materials. The industrialists have therefore put on the market technical innovations they had already developed. Indeed, the biodegradable plastics have been existing for many years. Alternatives such as biosourced and biodegradable plastics are well-known and ready for market. But their economic model is not the same as these materials are more expensive.

About the non-regulation of the term “biodegradable”
From a marketing standpoint, the demand of the consumer who does not wish to do without straw is to have a simple way to know if his straw is made of biodegradable materials or not. The immediate solution is therefore to indicate “biodegradable” on the packaging of straws or on their product sheet. Does this claim need to be technically proven? At the regulatory level, the answer is no. The term “biodegradable” is not regulated.
The biodegradable character refers to the possibility of the materials to be decomposed by the biological activity. That is to say that the organic molecules are converted into biomass and into CO2 for carbon, which is the main component of plastics. On land, the composting process is considered to be representative of biodegradation. It can be of industrial or domestic type. Standards are being established for these processes, particularly in Europe, which have led to the regulation of two terms: “compostable” and “compostable at home”, but not “biodegradable”.
The use of this term is therefore solely a matter of industrial ethics.

A factual example on biodegradable straws
The study presented in this article describes an audit on several types of so-called biodegradable straws that are sold in Brazil and the USA. They were analyzed in a laboratory to identify the type of polymer used. On 8 products, 7 are composed of PP which is not biodegradable, 4 contain additives supposed to bring biodegradability. The last one is made of PLA, which is industrially compostable, but totally non-degradable in sea water. On the 4 polymers with additives, 2 claim ASTM standards which correspond for one to Oxo-degradable plastics which are just fragmentable and for the other to no notion of degradation. The results of this study clearly show that the consumer is misled by the claim “biodegradable straws” and this is not out of the law. The plastic industry is very fragmented with a large number of actors. The risk of impact on the brand image of the companies is almost negligible.

Leaving the linear economics behind implies more ethics
In the example presented here, we are still in a linear economic flow that consumes resources and produces waste. The circular economy approach aims rather at reusing objects or recycling material, after having reduced hyperconsumption. The biodegradable character can be detrimental to recycling. It can also be detrimental because of the image of harmlessness it conveys. It is therefore a change in behaviour that is expected from the consumer and producers so that they do not just substitute one material for another without questioning the underlying economic model and without questioning ethics.


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