Oceans awash: Why ‘biodegradable plastic’ often isn’t

A new report from the United Nations “finds that biodegradable plastics, commonly found in plastic bags and bottles, degrade at extremely slow rates,” according to a story in the Christian Science Monitor. CFAES scientist Fred Michel is quoted in the story among others. The issue relates to the growing amount of plastic polluting our oceans. The authors of the report, according to the UK’s Guardian newspaper, wrote: “There is a moral argument that we should not allow the ocean to become further polluted with plastic waste, and that marine littering should be considered a ‘common concern of humankind.’”

EcoSummit preview: ‘None meet ASTM standards for biodegradability’

More from Eddie Gomez on his EcoSummit presentation:

“The amount of carbon in various commercially available bioplastics and natural fibers converted to CO2 (and methane) was determined during soil incubation, composting, and anaerobic digestion.” (The materials included biopolymers made from corn starch and polylactic acid; natural fibers such as coconut coir; and conventional plastics amended with additives claiming to confer biodegradability.)

“Although certain biopolymers and natural fibers appear to biodegrade to an appreciable extent, none meet ASTM standards for biodegradability or compostability.

“Conventional plastics containing additives did not biodegrade differently than non-additive-containing plastics.”

EcoSummit preview: Alternatives to conventional plastics?

From Eddie Gomez on his EcoSummit presentation:

“Plastics are increasingly causing pollution problems in natural environments due to their recalcitrant nature. Various new materials have recently begun to be marketed that claim to biodegrade or compost during waste treatment. These materials include conventional plastics amended with additives that are meant to confer biodegradability or compostability as well as plastics made from biopolymers, and natural-fiber-based materials.

“Different industries are particularly interested in these materials as alternatives to conventional plastics that are neither compostable nor biodegradable.”

View this Washington Post photo gallery as one example of plastics’ “recalcitrant nature.”

EcoSummit preview: Do bioplastics biodegrade?

A look at some of the presentations by CFAES scientists at EcoSummit 2012, which starts Sept. 30:

“Biodegradation of Bioplastics and Natural Fibers During Composting, Anaerobic Digestion, and in Soil” by Eddie Gomez and Fred Michel, both of the Department of Food, Agricultural, and Biological Engineering. Part of the seminar titled “Ecological Engineering: Designing and Restoring Ecosystem Services,” Oct. 4, session 2, 4-5:45 p.m.

Read an article by Michel on bioplastics and global warming here.


Reduce bottled water waste

How many of you drink single-serve water, such as Dasani? Well, in the United States we consume millions of bottles of water that equals billions of dollars. These plastic water bottles often end up as litter or in the landfill. Studies find that in fact only one in five bottles gets recycled. This costs America tons of money that could be spent elsewhere. The Ohio State University is one of the largest universities in the country, and if we can reduce our bottled water usage we could help set an example for the rest of the country.

At most restaurants tap water is free, but most people would still rather pay a couple of dollars for bottled water. Yes, bottled water is more convenient and some say it tastes better, but in fact studies have shown bottled water is not any healthier or even less healthy than tap water, and that there is no difference in taste.

There are several alternatives that the university could implement to help reduce the amount of plastic bottle use on campus. The best alternative would be to educate and provide reusable water bottles to students to fill with water at refilling stations. The next step would be to increase the number and availability of refill stations throughout campus.

The environment will only continue to degrade unless plans become implemented not only at the Ohio State University, but throughout the whole country. Implementing a plan at the university would be a good case study into finding out what alternatives work and what don’t. It is not a quick process but will take time and finding the right alternatives and providing the correct information.

Photo by team member Bex Pelishek during a water taste test on campus.