With all the problems plastic bags are causing to the natural environment, it’s little wonder there’s an abundance of alternatives hitting the market. Although biodegradable plastic bags have been around for a while now, many people still don’t know they exist.
Let’s look at the two main types of biodegradable plastic bags.
Biodegradable Plastic Bags
Typically, biodegradable plastic bags are made from farmed products like cornstarch, which break down into elements like carbon dioxide, water and methane. They don’t just decompose automatically though - they need the right conditions to decompose.
To decompose properly, a biodegradable plastic bag should be composted. It should not be sent to landfill, as it may contribute to methane emissions. To meet international standards, a biodegradable plastic bag should compost within 12 weeks, then fully biodegrade within 6 months.
Degradable Plastic Bags
Degradable plastic bags decompose due to a chemical additive to oxygen, light or heat and are best suited to landfill. Degradable bags are also referred to as “oxo degradable” bags.
Degradable plastic bags will usually break down automatically. This could range between anywhere from 3 months to 18 months after manufacture, or even longer.
So… Are They Eco Friendly?
On the face of it, biodegradable and degradable plastic bags seem like a good concept. They can be used just like any other plastic bag, then when the time is right, they decompose - possibly within 6 months (or 18 months for oxo degradable bags).
While it’s not hard to argue that these bags are much better than traditional plastic bags (which can take up to 1,000 years to fully decompose), many environmental organizations argue that biodegradable plastic bags still don’t go far enough in saving the planet, and I tend to agree.
Even if a plastic bag does biodegrade within 5 - 6 months, that’s still plenty of time for it to cause serious issues. A biodegradable plastic bag can still end up in the ocean where it can kill it’s wildlife. When a plastic bag begins to suffocate a baby dolphin, that dolphin will die within minutes. The fact that the bag will decompose within 6 months means nothing - it’s already too late.
Also, given the fact that up to 1 trillion plastic bags are being used on our planet every year, this is still a problem. Even if only say, 1% of plastic bags end up in our oceans, that still a lot of plastic bags. Every one of these can kill regardless of their biodegradable properties.
So, while these bags are better than traditional plastic bags, there are much more eco friendly bags around.