Thursday, February 4, 2010

Biodegradeable Plastic

We all know plastic is bad for the environment.
(I do not pretend to be an expert on the matter.)
The statistics say that three billion pounds of plastic are used in the United States annually and that most of it goes to landfills to sit for near an eternity. Clearly, this plastic does not always stay in landfills, and has negative effects on our environment and the animal/plant life within it. Ever heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, scientifically known as the "Gyre"? Basically, it's a giant trash island in the Pacific Ocean two times the size of Texas. Can I get a woah? If you haven't seen it already, there's a documentary called Toxic Garbage Island about this floating mass of trash. Watch it!

How disturbing.

It's especially disturbing when you consider that biodegradable plastic exists.
Recently, I found a company called Green Genius (from which some of the information in this post comes). Through Green Genius, I found biodegradable trash bags and immediately requested a sample through their website. I became interested in learning more about the process of making plastic biodegradable.

From what I gather, in simplest terms, it goes like this:
Green Genius bonds organic nutrients to the molecular structure of plastic using a proprietary substance (I guess this means they won't be giving out the recipe, and that kind of bothers me). This combination attracts the appetite of the microbes found in landfills, microbes that find standard plastic abhorrent. While the microbes feed on the organic nutrients of the bag, the plastic is also broken down into simpler organic matter, such as sugars, fatty acids, and amino acids. The microbes continue to feed until all that is left of the bag is water, bio-gas (carbon dioxide and methane), and bio-mass (humus, not to be confused with the delicious chick pea spread). Pretty cool, huh? If only I were a chemist.

Being the sceptic that I am, I looked into the standards of biodegradability, determined by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM). The test the Green Genius bags passed is called ATSM D5511, a test which examines the bags ability to degrade in anaerobic (without air), dry disposal, digestion (microbal) conditions. Supposedly, these conditions are typical of most landfills. The only problem I've really been able to find is that there is no test that has determined the conditions of an average landfill. I've also read that most biodegradable plastics do not decompose well in conditions that lack air and moisture (typical in the depths of landfills) and that few have passed the ATSM D5511 testing conditions. Hoorah for Green Genius? Other than that, there's some worry about the greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and methane, that are released into the atmosphere when the bags biodegrade, as well as the energy used to produce the bags in the first place, which is slightly higher than that of polypropylene (plastic). Honestly, I'm not sure these costs outweigh the benefits. I don't think the scientists know yet either. The research and development of alternative technologies are relatively infantile.

The bags are kinda pretty, don't you think? My feet think so.

Anyway, with my free sample finally filled with trash, I took it out to the dumpster today and started considering if I was going to buy into it all (literally). These things are not cheap, folks (1 box of large bags, 28 bags each, is fourteen dollars), and unless more people start using them, batches of organic waste in landfills will continue to be contaminated by regular plastic. What I like about Green Genius goes beyond their sale of biodegradable plastic, though. Apparently, a portion of their profits go to organizations invested in the removal of plastic waste from our environment. Am I decided whole-heartedly on biodegradable plastic ? Definitely not, I still don't know enough to say. But, I believe the research and the organizations dedicated to finding alternatives is a cause worthy of investment.



Austin said...

Wow. a) I had no idea there was a large stretch of ocean with a huge density of suspended garbage, b) biodegradable plastic sounds pretty BAMF. But you're right, on a few levels. Price has always...well, bothered me. It seems like the "right" choices we need to make (for our bodies and for the environment) are almost exclusively the more costly choices as well. Being green/healthy is, unfortunately, a luxury. I'd like to see that change. That being said, I really have to go to bed, my brain is non-functional at this point. Loved the post.

scantron said...

i'm gonna fill my bag full of plastic!