Are Biodegradable Products the Solution?

Nope, design is.

30 SECOND VERSION

One of the first things we researched when creating a product ‘sustainable by design’ was the term BIODEGRADABLE and the claims of brands using it. The term was hailed as a new saviour, unfortunately this is not the case. One of the many documentaries on the subject saw a waste expert dig up a landfill site from 40 years ago - it showed him sat in the rubbish reading an old newspaper as if it were printed yesterday. Landfills do not allow products to BIODEGRADE as they are literally a huge plastic container underground. No light, oxygen or water is available to start the biodegradation process.

5 MINUTE VERSION

Typically when you see the word biodegradable it offers some comfort that the product you are buying won’t harm our planet and that it will break down naturally and become part of the earth. The word can be like a soothing balm to mass consumers’ guilt (read our blog: Cotton is killing our planet). However, do we ever look behind the term biodegradable to understand what it actually means? Should we be aware of what’s needed to make a product biodegrade? What does it actually biodegrade in to? Ultimately, it’s down to trust, we trust that someone else has taken care of that issue for us, namely the brand owners or our local refuse collectors.

In nature, different materials biodegrade at different speeds. If you throw your banana peel into the undergrowth along with a steel toy soldier, your banana peel will have disappeared in a few months and your toy soldier will be rusty, but still very recognisably a toy soldier. It will take many years until the toy soldier disappears completely.

For a material to be able to biodegrade it needs light, water and oxygen. Temperature is also an important factor in determining the rate of biodegradation. Many products that are biodegradable in soil, such as food waste, grass cuttings or paper – will not biodegrade when placed into landfill, because the artificial landfill environment lacks the light, water and bacterial activity required for the decay process to begin. What we are essentially doing is putting all our waste into a ginormous plastic container, putting a lid on it and not allowing what’s needed to facilitate the biodegrading process. There is no sunlight, very little oxygen and very little water.

A landfill is basically preserving the contents, the opposite of biodegradable, it is however marginally better for our oceans, but an irrelevant claim, as most waste ends up in landfills (90%).

So slapping the word biodegradable onto something is not the answer. It’s just another marketing term that people believe is doing something to help.

It appears that there is no common definition of the term ‘biodegradable’ when its used by brand owners. The definition of biodegradable can technically be understood to mean ‘decompose by virtue of an interaction with bacteria or a living organism’ or perhaps a more digestible definition is  ‘it can dissolve in nature without harming the planet’. So, if I buy a product which states its ‘biodegradable’ I can just put it in to my compost bin and it will harmlessly dissolve in to the earth, right? Wrong?

Currently when brand owners use the terms biodegradable they can mean different things. In theory, the brand owners should be able to substantiate any claims which state that a product is biodegradable. Certification schemes have been developed which set out specific scientific criteria that must be met in order to say a product is biodegradable, currently such schemes are voluntary. The current European Industrial Compostable Standard (EN13432) requires a compostable material to have 90% outdoor biodegradation within the space of 6 to 9 months.  It can be helpful to look out for the following certifications ISO 14001 – Environmental Management Standard and ISO 14855 – Determination of Aerobic Biodegradability

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Can plastic be biodegradable?

You may have come across the term ‘bio-plastics’  and assume that they are somehow more environmentally friendly, it sounds like it, doesn’t it? However, we need to dig deeper, to understand how the polymer will break down and whether you can add it to your compost bin or need to rely on an industrial composting facility.  More importantly, however, in relation to biodegradable plastics, currently there is no definitive standard with a clear pass/fail criteria for plastics to be broken down in sea water, which is currently where we are seeing the biggest impact.

The only solution to the environmental crisis we are going through is DESIGN. We need to design and track everything we make and consume. Brands need to take responsibility for their products after use to ensure that they DESIGN the product with the full knowledge that they are getting it back on their doorstep. They will then ensure the product can be refurbished, re-used and recycled into other products.

At SeaPigs we fully believe in our products being ‘Sustainable by design’.

Over and snout,

SeaPigs

If we make it, we take it back