The use of biodegradable plastics has continued to be on a steady rise, given their advantage over traditional plastics.
Even though it may be seen as an advancement in the fight for a habitable environment, its existence has caused new problems.
Some of these problems are unavoidable, naturally resulting from the manufacture and degradation of these plastics, while some are simply from inadequate knowledge of the manufacture and degradation processes.
There have been many misconceptions about biodegradable plastics. Given the term “biodegradable” as a means of identification, many believe that biodegradable plastics are far better alternatives to traditional plastics.
Or given the definition of biodegradable plastics as plastics that can be decomposed when micro-organisms simply act on them causing them to turn to water, carbon(iv)oxide, biomass, or even disappear into the thin air, many believe these plastics to be eco-friendly; the perfect kind of material that will be friendly to the environment.
Biodegradable Plastics Misconceptions
Listed below are some of the misconceptions.
Biodegradable plastics degrade in the soil
Biodegradable materials require specific conditions to degrade. These conditions include the presence of biological microbes, a specific temperature range (about 50 degrees Celsius), and moisture. All these conditions will not be met if the plastics are simply buried or dumped on the soil.
Biodegradable plastics degrade easily
Relative to traditional plastics, biodegradable plastics take a shorter time to decompose. But this doesn’t imply that the time taken to decompose is short.
Depending on the design and physical and chemical structure of the plastic, it may take a long time, ranging from six months to a couple of years to decompose. The make-up of the composting media will also determine the rate at which it will decompose.
All biodegradable plastics are 100% bio-based
The reality about most biodegradable plastics is that some are fossil-based, like traditional plastics. Some are made from derivatives of crude oil but mixed with additives that make them decompose on exposure to sunlight and other necessary conditions.
Top 10 Problems of Biodegradable Plastics
Biodegradable plastics constitute a nuisance to the environment if not handled properly. We also have to deal with the problems that come with adopting them.
1. Poisoning by Herbicides, Fertilizers, and Pesticides
The use of biodegradable plastics has spread through all spheres of life. They are used by shopping malls to package items for buyers, by the medics to make pills and capsules, by manufacturing companies to make bottles and jars, and by restaurants to package food and snacks. These use demand that the biodegradable plastics involved be safe.
The major raw materials used for making biodegradable bags are plant products like corn starch. In the course of cultivating these crops, herbicides, fertilizers, and pesticides might have been used on the farm.
If these chemical substances come in contact with the crops and are not treated properly during the manufacture of the biodegradable plastics, they can make the plastics poisonous. This is an indication that even biodegradable products can be poisonous to humans.
2. Availability of Water
Water is an essential ingredient needed for the timely degradation of biodegradable plastics. In a situation where rain (which is the major source of water in many countries) becomes scarce, there might be a problem in the degradation process. The use of an artificial source of water may be expensive and less efficient.
The problem of availability of water could mean that areas that do not experience rainfall might continually have their plastic waste heaped up and constitute the same nuisance traditional plastics constitute.
3. Deposition of Used Plastics in Undesignated Places
As stated earlier, biodegradable plastics need to be given special treatment before they can be degraded. This would require a special collection of only these plastics so that they would be transported to a place where they can be degraded properly.
The identification and collection of these wastes can be herculean, especially as its usage is not yet rampant, and the general public’s awareness of the treatment of this kind of waste is not yet sufficient enough.
For the use of biodegradable plastics to be efficient, there has to be an effective waste collection system, means of transportation of the waste, and enlightenment on the need to collect the waste properly.
4. Mix-Up with Other Materials
Just as it’s easier to identify wastes as just “wastes,” instead of saying “metal waste,” human waste,” “biodegradable plastic waste,” and any other form of wastes, so it is with dumping all forms of wastes together in a bin instead of separating them before disposal.
Dumping all kinds of waste in a refuse bin may make the selection process of biodegradable materials cumbersome. This might cause the whole waste to be burnt or incinerated; it thereby eliminates the reasons why the biodegradable materials were made in the first place.
For biodegradable plastics to be properly managed, the government or relevant town agencies should make available specific dumpsites for these kinds of wastes.
5. Cost of Production
The cost of producing biodegradable plastics is higher than producing traditional plastics. This high cost stems from the limited availability of materials needed in making biodegradable bags, inadequate experts in the field of biodegradable waste management, the high cost of machines, and low patronage by people.
However, with an increase in awareness of the importance of biodegradable plastics, there should be an advancement in the technology used in producing and managing them, more production of raw materials, and an increase in the number of technical experts in the industry. All these will help to reduce the cost of producing these plastics.
6. Pressure on Limited Amount of Crops
The production of biodegradable plastics requires a large amount of farm crop produce. Unfortunately, these crops are what humans depend on largely for consumption. And this may cause undue stress on the limited crops available. This is a problem for developing countries whose home-grown crops are not enough to feed their citizens.
Even if separate crops are to be cultivated to make biodegradable bags, the pressure will shift to the limited farmland some countries suffer from.
7. Release of Poisonous Gases
During the degradation of biodegradable plastics, poisonous chemicals such as methane may be released into the atmosphere.
Methane, when inhaled in high concentration, displaces the oxygen in the lungs, thereby leading to a shortage of oxygen in the body. It also produces a greenhouse effect, just like carbon (iv) oxide, which leads to climate change in the long run.
However, this methane gas is produced when biodegradable substances are degraded under anaerobic conditions (without the presence of sufficient air). While under aerobic conditions, it may release carbon (iv) oxide. Excess of these gases is not good for the environment.
8. Unavailability of Machines, Equipment, and Skilled Manpower
Some countries are yet to implement the use of biodegradable plastics. This has discouraged engineering companies from venturing into the production of machines meant for this purpose.
Even students get discouraged from delving into such areas of research and studies as there are few prospects of getting employed in the industry.
Without the necessary machines and accompanying manpower meant for the degradation of this type of plastics, the purpose of producing biodegradable plastics is defeated already. However, the government may begin channeling its resources to the manufacturing of biodegradable machines and training skilled manpower if this widely sought-after alternative to traditional plastics must thrive.
9. Poor Enlightenment
Many people who use biodegradable plastics are yet to understand how these plastics work. Probably due to sheer ignorance or due to the inability of manufacturers to spell out instructions on the plastic item(s). Users have continued to dispose of these plastics the wrong way.
Manufacturers ought to list out special degradation requirements needed for degrading their products. This will make the use of biodegradable plastics an efficient one.
10. Encouragement of Indiscriminate Dumping of Waste
People tend to misuse biodegradable plastics by dumping them indiscriminately, believing they will decompose on their own after a short while. This is a human-driven problem that’s mainly due to ignorance about biodegradation processes.
The erroneous belief that the invention of biodegradable plastics is a solution to the menace of traditional plastics has caused more problems than traditional plastics.
For the use of biodegradable plastics to be effective, they have to be used when necessary, dumped at designated places, and handled with care as though they are as harmful as traditional plastics.
It’s normal for any technological improvement in the standard of living to have cons. But when these cons are not given the required attention, the innovation may become a nuisance entirely. Just as the world is excited about the emergence of biodegradable plastics, special provisions should also be made to mitigate the problems that arise from it.