The myth of biodegradability
Think you’re doing the right thing by using biodegradable products? Sadly, they’re nothing more than highly convincing false advertising.
If you believe that the biodegradable disposable diaper bags and coffee cups you use will break down and disappear a few months after you throw them in the garbage, you’re not alone. Biodegradability is one of the most widely believed forms of “greenwashing” – the false marketing of products as eco-friendly – in the U.S. and around the world.
The truth is that biodegradability in modern landfills is a myth – and we’ve known it for a long time. As early as the late 1980s, archeologist and University of Arizona professor Dr. William Rathje discovered through his landmark Garbage Project that very little organic matter breaks down at the dump. He unearthed intact hot dogs and readable newspapers after 40 years, a head of lettuce and an order of guacamole that still looked fresh after 25 years, and carrots that were still orange inside after a decade.
Why is food staying pristine rather than breaking down and nourishing the soil to help grow more food as we’ve been led to believe since we were kids? The answer is simple: landfills are almost entirely devoid of the oxygen and microorganisms (such as bacteria and fungi) that are necessary to break down food quickly and efficiently.
When food scraps are tightly wrapped in plastic bags and buried under layers of trash, they biodegrade at an alarmingly slow rate. And under these conditions, they emit large amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas that warms the planet 86 times as much as CO2 over 20 years. That’s a far cry from our childhood “circle of life” notions.
Plastics don’t stand a chance
If vegetables don’t even biodegrade in landfills, how can we expect plastics to break down? Well, we can’t. Let’s take a look at the two main types of biodegradable plastics and their shortcomings.
Hydro-biodegradable plastics (also known as “bioplastics”) such as polylactic acid (PLA) are derived from plant sugars. PLA is made from corn, which is a renewable resource, and it requires less energy to produce than regular plastic. But because it requires very high temperatures to biodegrade properly, it stays intact just as long as regular plastic in landfills and emits methane when deprived of oxygen. PLA can’t be recycled and even results in recyclable plastic being tossed at recycling centers if PLA is mixed up with it. It can be composted, but not in your backyard bin – only in commercial composting facilities which are rare.
Products made from hydro-biodegradable plastic include: plastic bags, food packaging, cutlery, crockery, straws, and bottles for soft drinks and dairy products.
Oxo-biodegradable plastics are made from a byproduct of oil – a non-renewable resource. They require plenty of oxygen to break down, so they’re just as useless at biodegrading in landfills. While the Oxo-Biodegradable Plastic Association claims that they’re recyclable as part of the regular plastic waste stream, several studies have concluded that oxo-biodegradable plastics negatively affect the quality of recycled plastic and therefore shouldn’t be recycled. As with PLA, these plastics can be composted in hard-to-find commercial facilities but not in backyard composts.
Products made from Oxo-biodegradable plastic include: plastic bags (including shopper bags and rolls of bags for garbage cans, diapers and dog waste), disposable gloves, foam plates, cups and cutlery.
What about photodegradable plastics and other compostable products?
Photodegradable plastics degrade when exposed to light, but it’s easy to see the futility of this functionality when they’re buried deep in landfills. As for coffee cups, diapers and other products that claim to be compostable, don’t expect them to break down in your backyard compost bin – you’re likely to find them intact months or even years later. Unless you have a commercial composting facility near you, don’t bother buying them.
If you’re wondering why we bother making biodegradable or compostable products at all, brace yourself because it gets worse.
Biodegradable bags harm animals
Last year, the Australian government investigated the environmental impact of biodegradable plastic bags and concluded that they’re just as bad as regular plastic bags.
“While consumers might feel they are ‘doing the right thing’ by choosing biodegradable or degradable plastic, these products simply disintegrate into smaller and smaller pieces to become microplastic,” reads the report.
According to Mark Browne, a biodiversity expert who contributed to the inquiry, these small pieces of plastic can harm animals that ingest them. “They can enter their lungs or guts and can transfer chemicals into the blood and surrounding tissues, which can affect how well they’re able to fight off infections,” he told news.com.au.
“The particles fill up the animals’ guts and they’re not able to consume as much water or food. They may die from dehydration or starvation or being infected because their immune systems have been reduced.”
The negative effects of biodegradable bags on marine life certainly aren’t limited to Australia. In 2015, the United Nations Environment Programme produced a report called “Biodegradable Plastics and Marine Litter” that came to much the same conclusions.
Our clothes are poisoning our food chain
Sadly, plastic bags aren’t the only culprits – our obsession with fast fashion is also contributing to marine plastic pollution.
The cheap, mass-produced clothes we buy are made from synthetic fibers that break down into tiny plastic microfibers when they’re washed. These microfibers then make their way into our waterways and oceans where they’re consumed by fish and other wildlife just like the microplastics from biodegradable bags. When we eat these animals and fish, the plastic threads end up in our bodies.
In other words, the cheap tank top you bought at the discount store last week could end up on your dinner plate. By polluting our food chain with our disposable clothing culture, we could end up poisoning ourselves. Yuck.
The solution: reduce and reuse
Instead of looking for ways to make our gargantuan amounts of trash disappear, we need to focus on reducing our consumption and choosing products that are reusable, durable and have less packaging.
All the products sold on The Tot have passed rigorous testing to ensure that they’re made from high-quality, non-toxic and durable materials. Here’s a selection of our favorites.
Wooden toys: Plastic, shmastic! Avoid the whole issue by investing in some beautiful playthings made from sustainably sourced or recycled wood that you’ll be able to pass down to future generations. They’re free from nasty chemicals and dyes, too.
See our article on 10 wooden toys your tot will actually love.
Organic cotton clothing: If you want to bypass the synthetic fibers that are polluting our oceans, choose organic cotton clothing and accessories. You’ll be amazed at the quality of these products and how much longer they last than mass-produced baby clothes. Here are a few of our favourite organic cotton clothing picks.
Reusable food containers: Say sayonara to all those disposable sandwich bags and cheap food containers that end up in our landfills by the ton. Instead, invest in some good-quality reusable containers that will not only be kinder to the planet, but also better for your family’s health because they’re free from BPA, phthalates and other toxic chemicals. Here’s a selection of our favorite ones.