News Brief by Kip Hansen – 14 October 2020
In an article in the New York Times, “Why ‘Biodegradable’ Isn’t What You Think”, the NY Times’ journalist, John Schwartz , makes several very good points about new products – new packaging options – being labelled “biodegradable” and “compostable”.
Primarily, as many of you already know, the labels “biodegradable” and “compostable” are for the most part simply marketing ploys — clever tactics used by marketers to drive more purchases of a specific product. These labels don’t really mean that when you dispose of the empty biodegradable or compostable packaging that it will magically blend back into the natural environment, broken down into its basic elements. It doesn’t mean that the biodegradable paper bottle or the compostable carryout fast food container will biodegrade or compost.
One example is the new “corn-based plastic” – PLA or polylactide. Bottles made of this plastic look similar enough to PET plastic bottles [ polyethylene terephthalate ] (like those that soft drinks and bottled water come in) to make separation in single-stream recycling impossible. In reality, they are actually just another form of polyester – with a different source material. The two materials, though similar, cannot be mixed in the recycling process as they contaminate one another.
Schwartz tells us “The labels on PLA products often describe them as compostable. But that doesn’t mean you can just throw the stuff into your backyard compost pile, if you have one. To properly degrade, they have to be sent to commercial compost facilities.”
PLA bottles would have to be collected at point-of-sale and point-of-use locations, say an amusement park that only sells water and soda in PLA bottles so they can be sent to a specialized composting service. Outside such use this means, of course, that if PLA soda or water bottles come into wide-spread use they cannot easily be recycled as they will be mixed and confused with and may prevent the recycling of the current PET bottles.
Paper is mostly wood or other plant fibers and is both recyclable and compostable. That is, if it is only paper. But not the new paper-based packaging, especially paper boxes and bottles intended to hold liquids, such as wine and juices. These plastic containers are made of layers of paper and plastics and thus become neither compostable or recyclable. They are then suitable to be landfilled or burned in trash-to-power plants only!
You may have been served part of a meal at a Chipotle restaurant made of pressed fibers.
“Some fast-casual restaurants use bowls designed and marketed to be compostable. They are made from bagasse, a fiber produced as a byproduct from sugar cane mills.” Mr Schwartz tells us.
Luckily, fiber based bowls can be both recycled and composted – but recycled only if they haven’t actually been used and contaminated with food, in which case they must be sent to a composting service or a landfill. In the landfill, they will eventually breakdown and mix with all the other “stuff’ buried there. [This paragraph updated 0800 14 Oct 2020 – kh ]
PHA – Bacteria Created Plastic
PHA, or Polyhydroxyalkanoates, are, you guessed it, “polyesters produced in nature by numerous microorganisms, including through bacterial fermentation of sugars or lipids.” Its primary virtue is that it is not made from petroleum. Like many promising products, “producing the material economically, however, has been a technical challenge.” A company in Singapore has manufactured plastic straws from the material, and an American company hopes to produce bottles from the plastic.
John Schwartz, the NY Times’ journalist, says this:
“PHA, or polyhydroxyalkanoate, has been the next big thing in biodegradability for years. This bioplastic, which can be produced by bacteria, has promising properties: Research suggests it can break down in conventional landfills. In ocean water, it will degrade within a few years, a fraction of the 450 years that it takes standard plastic.”
Hurrah! If they can find a way to make this new plastic affordably, research suggests that items made from it can breakdown in regular landfills.
“In ocean water, it will degrade within a few years, a fraction of the 450 years that it takes standard plastic.”
Oops—where did that last bit come from? The “450 years that it takes standard plastic” to breakdown is a falsehood prominently promoted by NOAA.
Now, it is a serious matter to call information from NOAA a falsehood. But this is the case. How do we know? NOAA tells us so on this page, an interview transcript about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
DIANNA PARKER: A lot of people hear the word patch and they immediately think of almost like a blanket of trash that can easily be scooped up, but actually these areas are always moving and changing with the currents, and it’s mostly these tiny plastics that you can’t immediately see with the naked eye.
TROY KITCH: I noticed that you said garbage patch ‘areas.’ So the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is only one area in the ocean where marine debris concentrates?
DIANNA PARKER: There are garbage patches all over the world. These are areas where debris naturally accumulates. So there are garbage patches of all different sizes and shapes and compositions. The one that we know the most about is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch which lies in an area between Hawaii and California. What we know about this area is that it’s made up of tiny micro plastics, almost akin to a peppery soup, with scattered larger items, fishing gear, those kind of items swirling around.
TROY KITCH: A peppery soup? Could you explain that again?
DIANNA PARKER: Well, imagine tiny, tiny micro plastics just swirling around, mixing in the water column from waves and wind, that’s always moving and changing with the currents. These are tiny plastics that you might not even see if you sailed through the middle of the garbage patch, they’re so small and mixed throughout the water column.
Here’s a photo of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch from The Ocean Cleanup project:
The Guardian claims that “480bn plastic drinking bottles were sold in 2016….most plastic bottles produced end up in landfill or in the ocean.”
See all those floating millions of plastic bottles? No?
Why not? Even when one goes to the areas of the oceans that concentrate floating pelagic plastic, the great oceanic gyres, and searches diligently, with nets and sub-millimetric sieves, the millions of plastic bottles, claimed to take 450 years to breakdown, are not found. They don’t even find very many bits of plastic large enough to pick up with your fingers. Here’s what they found sieving the Great Garbage Patches of the world’s oceans:
Almost everything found was between 4 and 0.75 millimeters. Almost nothing over 10 mm – about 0.4 inches. And under .075 mm (which is very small), the number of “bits” drops off rapidly approaching zero.
If PET soda and water bottles really took 450 years to breakdown, at least some of the plastic bottles that have escaped into the wild and been washed into the ocean ought to be still floating around out there. Why are they not found?
Firstly, PET has a specific gravity of about 1.3. That means it does not float once it is no longer a hollow container (like, say, a bottle with a bit of liquid in the bottom). When still hollow, they float. They are not found floating in the ocean because they rapidly breakdown from the effects of the sun and the waves, break apart, break apart again, and again, and then the bits sink.
As the NOAA spokesperson, Dianna Parker explains:
“Plastics never really go away. They just break down over and over and over again until they become smaller and smaller from sunlight and other environmental factors [like] waves, big storms, those kind of things.”
NOAA says they breakdown, into smaller and smaller pieces. That part is true, but the idea that they “never really go away” is false. What happens to those little bits?
Or if you prefer, here.
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Kindergarten rules apply at all stages and areas of life:
Pick up after yourself — clean up your own messes:
Put your trash in the trash bin. We need to do all we can to keep every sort of trash, including plastics, contained and disposed of in a responsible manner – this keeps it out of the oceans and the rest of the natural environment.
Plastics are valuable and should be recycled whenever possible into useful and valuable commodities, such as replacements for lumber in decking, shipping pallets, etc.
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The whole recycling movement in the USA is a terrible mess. Almost everything ends up in the landfill.
New plastics won’t solve the perceived problem. Landfilled plastics are not really a problem anyway, certainly not any more of a problem than landfilled glass. Not a problem, it is just a waste.
NOAA’s continuing anti-plastic campaign – some details of which are gross misinformation — is a shame.
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