Corn-based and other plant-derived plastics are all the rage these days, and are marketed as the ideal way to treat our plastic addiction. They’re made from a renewable resource, lessening our dependency on fossil fuels, and they are compostable, reducing the amount of plastic waste lingering in our landfills—what could be bad about that?
Not so fast. The issue is a bit more complex than it seems on the surface, and it turns out that these plastics still have big environmental impacts, just in different ways.
Cool, My Cutlery is Compostable!
But wait. It won’t break down in my home compost pile, or in a landfill, you say? Plant-based, or Polylactic Acid Polyesters (PLA), plastics require the near-perfect conditions found in a commercial composting facility: consistent high temperatures, ideal humidity, etc. in order to break down. Very few consumers have access to these facilities; even fewer are lucky enough to have curbside composting pickup. This means that the majority of the plastics will end up in the landfill, where contrary to popular belief, they do not biodegrade.
Well, then I can recycle it right? Wrong. PLAs are not recyclable and contaminate the recycling stream. Removing non-recyclables from the batch is a costly and time-consuming affair, and many of these costs are passed on to the consumer. Even worse, some facilities don’t bother to sort contaminated bins, and the whole load ends up in the landfill.
Oil Free, Guilt Free
But, they’re made from a renewable resource. At least I can feel good about that! Or can you? One of the strongest sellingpoints for many consumers lies in the fact that PLAs are plant-based rather than petroleum-based, and that’s a valid argument. But, consider how the majority of crops sourced to manufacture the PLA polymer are grown. Crops like corn, beets, potatoes, and other starchy plants are grown on a huge scale, are doused with tons of petro-chemicals, i.e. fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides in order to maximize production.
Processing the plant material to make the polymer also requires energy from fossil fuels. So, unless crops grown organically, the processing plant is using clean energy from the sun or wind, the process to make PLA relies pretty heavily on petroleum.
Wanted: Farmland For Food Production
But that’s not all. Perhaps the biggest, and most controversial, impact of growing plastics is the fact that it is taking up perfectly good farmland to grow food that is not being used…for food. Scientists predict that we haven’t seen anything yet when it comes to the global food shortage, so growing plants that could be used to feed people but using them to make packaging and fuel (that’s another argument altogether) doesn’t seem like a sustainable solution.
As we continue to lose arable lands to commercial development to support the burgeoning population, cut down the rainforest to grow corn and graze cattle, it makes less and less sense to use farmland to grow plastic. Some might argue that much of our cropland is used to cultivate livestock feed to grow animals that only a small percentage of the population eats, so it’s already an inefficient system, and this is a valid point. But, it doesn’t mean that we should add insult to injury and use food as a source for plastic, it only means that the whole system needs an overhaul.
Biodegradable Plastics to the Rescue!
So what’s an eco-conscious consumer to do? It’s not very practical (or even possible at this point) to ditch plastic altogether, so what’s the alternative?
Enter biodegradable plastics. Products made with ENSO’s leading edge technology render any conventional plastic biodegradable in a landfill setting, where most plastic ends up.
ENSO’s biodegradable bottles and other products offer a sustainable solution to the growing plastic waste problem. They disappear under natural conditions, thanks to the work of microbes that quickly and completely break them down, leaving behind only organic compounds and new soil. They’re also recyclable. To move away from dependency on petroleum to source plastic, ENSO is always working with an eye toward the future, to consider other sources like algae, and improve existing technology.
At the end of the day, the take home lesson is this: Know what you are buying, and understand the impacts of the full process of how it was made, and what happens after it’s disposed of, because green products aren’t always what they’re cracked up to be.