Unless you’ve been living under a rock, like that oue from Sponge Bob, you would be aware of the pressure plastic places on our oceans, but how much do you understand about plastic. The world of plastic contains many confusing terms. Even the most clued up plastic consumer may have a hard time sorting out “good” plastics from bad.
Over the next 4 weeks, Zag and Corona X Parley have come together to shed a little light on the topic as we build up to the Corona Open JBay. Understanding the problem goes a long way toward solving it. So let’s go ahead and dip our big toe into the world of plastic as we discuss additives, biodegradable plastics, and bioplastics.
We’ve all heard the word, but what the actual plastic are additives? Let me break it down. Chemicals added during the manufacture of plastic products to make them stronger, safer, more or less flexible etc are known as additives. Common additives include water repellents, stiffeners & softeners, colour and UV blockers. Why should you care? Well, some of these additives may contain potentially toxic substances to you and the environment.
Plastic still holds the potential to pollute without being littered through the release of compounds used during manufacture. Additives, much like a kook in the line-up, force their way into the environment via chemicals leached from plastics into air and water. As a result, some compounds used in plastics, such as bisphenol A (BPA), and polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE), have been taking some heat in the public eye. These compounds are found in all sorts of kak from medical devices, food packaging, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and so much more. They can also be found closer to home, in our surfboards, wax, and wetsuits.
Compounds such as these disrupt the endocrine system. Some act against male hormones and are known as anti-androgens; BPA mimics the natural female hormone estrogen, and PBDE has been shown to disrupt thyroid function. Hormone disruption of animals in terrestrial, aquatic, and marine habitats is commonplace. Does a swamp monster from Scooby-Doo come to mind?
A biodegradable product should, in theory, break down into natural raw materials thanks to the help of microorganisms. True. You can just bury it, problem solved. False. There is no clear, underlined and accepted measure for what constitutes a product as “biodegradable,” resulting in no set definition. Some nations are going so far as to ban the term until a clear standard is agreed upon.
What you get from biodegradable plastic, is a material made from natural substances that don’t contain harmful additives used in regular plastic, therefore do not pose the same risk to the environment. Regular plastics hold carbon, and when broken down they release this stored carbon, this is not the case for biodegradable plastics, well where carbon is concerned that is.
So, where’s the but? Well, they do not decompose unless they are disposed of properly, meaning that biodegradable plastics must be treated similarly to compost. The natural breakdown of the plastic will not occur if it is simply tossed in a landfill with other trash. Some scientists also suggest that greenhouse gases are locked within the plastic and are released into the atmosphere when composted such as methane which is far more destructive to the environment than carbon dioxide. It seems the question of whether or not biodegradable plastics will someday replace traditional plastic is still a matter up for debate.
This rather ‘wishy-washy’ term is currently applied to a wide spectrum of plastics, encompassing both biologically based plastics that are biodegradable and those that are not. But what does it all mean? Well long story short, it means there is no guarantee that a bioplastic will be made from a non-toxic, non-fossil-fuel source, or that it will biodegrade.
Since their inception, bioplastics have long been controversial. Manufacturers like to portray them as a silver-bullet to regular plastics. Where their life cycle assessment is concerned bioplastics, are touted as saving 30–80% of greenhouse gas emissions than regular plastic. However, this certainly ain’t the light at the end of the tunnel as they produce methane when they decompose. Some need exposure to UV light, high temperatures and in the end still, take years to break down.
Bioplastics are made from plants such as corn and maize, so land that could be used to grow food for the world is being used to “grow plastic” instead. This then brings in the usual environmental impacts of large-scale agriculture, greenhouse emissions, and water pollution.
Confusing jargon hampers public understanding, which makes it harder for consumers to grasp the issues and make positive choices when they shop. Your best bet is to exercise caution, what is painted in a beautiful light may just be the devil in disguise.