It’s a Polymergency and I Want to Talk Trash…

Let’s face it; nobody knows what to do about it.  Seattle just banned the bags, there are entire towns banning the bottles, and California has banned any decision making process all together.   If you don’t know about it or if you’re just blatantly unaware, there is a subject that’s coming to a movie theatre near you – literally.  Films such as “Bag It” and “Addicted to Plastic” are just a couple of eye opening documentaries that are meant to be wake-up calls to the general public to stop and take notice.  I remember seeing Food Inc.  for the first time; it’s a snap back to reality.  This particular wake-up call is screaming – PLASTIC!  And it all correlates with each other, feedstock, energy, governments, the environment, industry power-players, and the ability to make wise(r) choices.  We have a polymergency!  You may not see it out your front door, but if you care to look out the proverbial back door, you will find that we’re swimming in plastics.  200 billion pounds of it is being produced every year and growing at a ferocious rate, most all of it, despite your own good intentions, is heading for a landfill…and it’s not going away.

There are plenty of intertwined storylines, but it boils down to three choices and what’s right – right now.  First, you have your PLA’s (polylactic acid), made from corn starch.  This is the choice to compost, Industrial Compost, not your backyard contraption.  It’s sourced from feedstock with GMOs to harvest a specific type of crop – red flags should already be flying.  If you’re not sure where I’m heading here, then I recommend “Food, Inc.” an enlightening description about genetic engineering and our food supply.  Nevertheless, the PLA technology lacks the performance characteristics of tradition plastics (low melting point and poor barriers) and, by definition and despite the claims, it is not actually biodegradable. Ideally, and a stretch for sure, this type of plastic ends up in an industrial composting facility.  If the compost facility actually accepts it (although not likely), it is lovingly processed into the “organic” soil under a very controlled environment.  Otherwise, it’s considered a contaminant in the recycling stream and it’s undoubtedly going to a landfill.

Then there are the oxo-degradables, the choice to degrade.  Okay, let’s get this out of the way, “Biodegradability” means that the organic material is capable of being broken down into innocuous products by the action of living things (as microorganisms).  But, because everything eventually decays over time (albeit a ridiculous amount of time for plastic); this term is being unreasonably used when describing oxo-degradables as oxo-“bio”degradables.  Oxo-degradables do just that, degrade.  The technology certainly makes it look like its biodegrading.  Have you ever picked-up an old brittle piece of plastic that just breaks apart in your hand?  Basically, there are metal-ions interspersed along the polymer chain.  When an oxo-degradable plastic is exposed to UV light and oxygen (which occurs immediately), like any metal, the ions deteriorate.  The plastic becomes brittle and it breaks apart into tiny pieces of itself and contaminating, not biodegrading, into the soil and food chain.  Obviously, there are shelf-life issues with oxo’s and, like PLA’s, they’re not welcome in the recycling stream.  They’re heading for a landfill, and since this technology requires oxygen to degrade, and most landfills are an anaerobic (without oxygen), the plastic won’t degrade, let alone “biodegrade.”

Now a different technology has emerged, a technology which proves actual accelerated biodegradation without affecting the properties of traditional plastic.  This is the ENSO technology that’s causing such misunderstanding for the California legislatures, and curiously enough, for the time being, their answer is to only allow you to be informed if the product is compostable (PLA).  Considering the fact that the chances of your plastic trash being introduced into a composting facility, if you are actually able to find one in your area, are slim to none, this this is a peculiar line for California to take a stance on. The ENSO technology is an FDA approved and scientifically proven additive that maintains all the phenomenal characteristic of traditional plastic.  The technology works with the recycling stream and the accelerated biodegradation occurs when the plastic enters a highly microbial aerobic/anaerobic environment (landfills).  In comparison studies, when weighing factors such as sourcing, shelf-life, and end-of-life factors, the ENSO technology for biodegradation is simply a better choice.

Our scientific technology is moving towards better answers, but this is going to take time. Yet, with 100 million tons of plastic being dropped on our doorstep every year, we need to embrace proven newcomers to the scene.  The answer isn’t to take away the bag or the bottle; it’s to choose a better bag or bottle. And it’s certainly not time to cripple advancements with bureaucratic finagling.  Also, before we get too wrapped-up in the “green washing” of new technologies coming to market, we should start asking tougher questions.  Just because something is labeled with a “feel-good” name and has “feel-good” pictures accompanying the marketing campaigns, does not mean it’s better for our environment.   We are burying ourselves in plastic trash and separating the wheat from the chaff, or the marketing from the innovation, is going to be a critical step in improving our methods and preventing us from further trashing our planet.