Is Biodegradable Plastic an Oxymoron Just Like Recyclable Plastic?

Paul Goettlich 5 Dec 2004

    The concept that something with the properties required for plastic containers can be composted into its original components — as found in nature — is a stretch at best. Engineers and scientists may come up with any number of standards that attempt to define nature. All are reductionist in essence and do not work when applied to whole systems. The regulations derived from their standards are semantic redefinitions of the natural world.

Simply Stated

The claim of biodegradable plastics is a hoax. They fall apart into smaller and smaller bits over time, but never return to any resemblance of a natural state. The “chasing arrows” symbol for recycling plastics was made up by plastics manufacturers to make people think plastics are recyclable. They are not recyclable and never will be. When we put plastic containers at the curbside for recycling, less than 9% is reused once. And less than 1% is reused twice. But all the rest — more than 90% — must be disposed of. Most of that is incinerated. The rest is dumped, where it sits and pollutes. A better picture would be of moving this plastic mess to a few different parking places before going to the dump or incinerator. But, it is NEVER actually recycled.

    Duped Again

    While non-biodegradable plastics come back to haunt the planet forever, biodegradable plastic degrades to the point where we can no longer see it. However, it’s still there and still has many or all of the dreaded properties it supposedly got rid of. In other words, it doesn’t work as we would expect from the claim of biodegradability. It’s a hoax even when it works. Even if science comes up with a method to degrade using enzymes it will leave behind an over abundance of the breakdown products that are consolidated into one or more masses that harm the Earth’s natural balance.

    Another point beyond the direct toxicity and biodegradability is that it is a single-use product. That alone is enough to be rejected as a sustainable product. The practice of buying something for a single use must be halted immediately. There is no place for such wasteful behavior in a world in the grips of resource depletion and pollution overload. I am therefore completely against the manufacture, sale, purchase and use of biodegradable products. They are the (not so) happy alternative that allows people to continue consuming without regard to many associated issues.

    Just Plain Bad Farming

    Furthermore, PLA plastics utilize corn grown on corporate monoculture farms and will most likely be a genetically engineered corn that will live through being repeatedly flooding with Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup.

    The farming of genetically engineered crops will never be sustainable. It uses more pesticides than normal conventional farming, which itself isn’t sustainable. Sustainable organic farming uses next to no pesticides, and none at all of the type that are considered standard in conventional farming.

    Conventional farming uses pesticides because it is a monoculture — one crop is grown on thousands of acres. All the beneficial insects and organisms have been killed, as well as the vegetation that supports that beneficial life. Monoculture farming’s lack of diversity is the chief cause of the pestilence requiring pesticides. Not the other way around. Diversity is key to survival, which means that modern farming is essentially a death wish. The step up the technology ladder increases the odds of failure dramatically.

    In the farming of genetically engineered crops such as Roundup Ready corn — as opposed to normal conventional corn — pesticide use is actually increased rather than decreased. Crop output — in terms of both quantity and quality — is also reduced rather than increased. And it is impossible to contain the pollen from genetically engineered crops, making organic agriculture a doomed concept at best. Everything that the industry claims about its GMO crops is categorically false.

    You’re Not In Kansas Any More Dorothy

    Industrial farms also destroy communities they are in. Unions are busted. Likewise, communication between farmers and neighbors is destroyed. An adversarial mood is instilled in the community. And indeed, the farmer is rapidly being disappeared by the likes of Monsanto. It will do anything and say anything to make a buck. Percy Schmeiser is a perfect example. It is not wise to ignore the consequences of dealing with Monsanto, Cargill, and any of the other agribusiness giants.

    Consolidation of farms is having an enormous effect on farmers. So many farmers have left farming that they have been disappeared on paper. The job category “farmer” no longer appears on the US census because less that 2% of the US population farms for a living. And remaining farmers generally need to supplement their income with one or more extra jobs, meaning that farming is could almost be considered a hobby rather than a profession.

    I could write pages on this idea, but the message I’d like to leave the reader with is to “watch the doughnut not the hole.” In other words, watch the real issues and don’t be distracted by corporate smoke and mirrors. The hole is the allure of being able to maintain our current lifestyles while not causing environmental and social harm. However there is no easy way out. Consumption is consumption no matter what pretty picture is painted of it. And we all must get to understand the effects of every move we make in terms of: energy used (inputs); waste caused (output); social aspects; and so much more.  Corporate America has many millions of dollars to invest in promoting its products. A few of them that offer something more than lip service. And even those that promote a more sustainable way to consume do so in ways that increase business rather than reduce it. But then, they are in business to sell stuff. And we need to buy less of it.

    At first look, the concept of biodegradability seems admirable. But follow the links out in all directions until you think there are no more, and then dig deeper. It is not enough to merely see that a plastic degrades. What we don’t see amounts to so much more and must be considered before any new technology is accepted.

Post Script (almost 20 years later) 16 Oct 2020

Yes, 20 years later there’s been no substantive change or improvement in plastics. The way they are made. The materials that make them. The waste. The atmospheric releases. The mass of redundant plastics continues to grow exponentially. There’s no way to honestly recycle plastic. All efforts are child’s play by the industry meant to distract us from the reality that the production of all or most plastics must be halted immediately.

It’s Everywhere and It’s All Bad

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