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Is Biodegradable Foodware A Hoax?

IT ISN’T A HOAX IF the foodware (the feedstock and any inks or labels used), has been tested and certified as being biodegradable, using international standards.

Foodware that claim to be ‘biodegradable’ must be in conformance with standards that are independently assessed by a third party, i.e. a certification body.

According to ASTM D6400 and D6868 the Leading American Standard, (and the European equivalent EN13432, biodegradability is determined by measuring the amount of CO2 produced over a certain time period by the biodegrading plastic. The standards require 60% (90% for EN13432) conversion of carbon into carbon dioxide within 180 days for resins made from single polymer and 90% conversion of carbon into carbon dioxide for co-polymers or polymer mixes.

Element 100% Biodegradable foodware:

  • meets industry certification including OK Biobased by Vincotte and ASTM D6400 and D6866;
  • is made from Origo - a starch based bio-plastic made primarily from up to 70% of corn and yam and 30% - pp (polypropylene) pallets for water proofing and heat resistance qualities. When micro-organism ingests and digests the starch aspect of the product, the polypropylene (PP) content in origo that is assimilated with the corn is fully broken down into compost after 90 days even if it lands in the landfill and produces a non-toxic humus waste that can be used as fertilizers.
  • is 72% more carbon efficient than traditional plastics, such polystyrene in the production process;
  • is carbon neutral, non-toxic, microwaveable and freezeable, strong and durable and can be reused up to three times;

The added bonus is that Element:

  • comes in twelve vibrant and fashionable colours to suit your taste and needs
  • is competitively priced to normal plastics and cheaper than most biodegradable and compostable products.

Note: PLA is also a biodegradable thermoplastic derived from renewable resources, such as corn starch or sugarcanes. Such plastics are made from 100% plant based materials and fully compostable, however, they cannot withstand temperatures above 60 degrees C and the price is 3 to 5 times more expensive than starch based bio-plastics like Origo.

Biodegradable Foodware IS a HOAX IF there is misinformation or the eco-credentials are oversold:

That is, a foodware claims to be biodegradable:

  • With no evidence of being certified to have met international standards;
  • No information on how long the decomposition takes and the by-product that is left behind. This is very much dependent on the composition of the material and the environment in which the decomposition occurs. Biodegradability is not only based on the feedstock of the product but on the chemical signature, that is the way the plastics are put together.

We need to be mindful of the following issues and environmental challenges:

  • Terms like ‘eco-friendly’ ‘green’ and even ‘natural’ has been bandied around quite a bit with no regulated and defined standards to test such claims. ‘Biodegradable’ is another such term and most products, especially disposables that claim to be so and destined for the landfill will not biodegrade even in our lifetime!
  • Technically all materials are biodegradable, but a traditional plastic water bottle will take 450 years to decompose. Something labelled as biodegradable can make its claim though a technicality in the very definition (saying that anything is biodegradable if you wait long enough isn’t a lie after all). This idea makes it difficult for users to know exactly how much they are helping the environment and how ‘green’ the product really is.
  • Ordinary plastics are passed on as oxo or hydro degradable product. Certain additives or chemicals are added into the compositional makeup of the plastic material to speed up the process of degradation. The degradation is not biological but chemical degradation by oxidation and hydrolysis for oxo and hydro-biodegradable plastics respectively.                                                                                                     The main material is still petroleum based plastics and the extent of the degradation process really depends on the amount of additives added. The more additives added, the faster the degradation, the more expensive the product. It can never be as cheap as normal plastics. If the product is as cheap as normal petroleum plastics, then the amount of additives is very little and the product is like normal plastic.                                                                                                                                                                                                                         Several companies are greenwashing their so called oxo or hydro degradable product using this unethical method of adding very little additives and hoping to gain a premium on their otherwise ordinary everyday plastic material. Upon burial of these products, toxic wastes are produced and these can do further damage to the environment.                                                                                                               In fact, European Bioplastics have requested in a press release in Oct 2015, that all producers of additives claiming to make conventional plastics biodegradable to fully comply with the standard EN 13432 or to seize misleading references. Cases of biodegradable hoax include those who claim that additive-mediated plastics comply with EN 13432.                                                                                                                                                                                                               Other cases use the good reputation of EN13432 by referring to only parts of the standard.  "If a standard is referenced, all aspects of it need to be fulfilled by the material or product. Should this not be the case, the reference is misleading. We urge all market operators to comply with communication standards according to the ISO 14020 series," states François de Bie, Chairman of the Board of EUBP.
  • Products that are photodegradable biodegrade only when exposed to sunlight. A popular example is the plastic “polybag” in which many magazines now arrive protected in the mail. But the likelihood that such items will be exposed to sunlight while buried dozens of feet deep in a landfill is little to none. And if they do photodegrade at all, it is only likely to be into smaller pieces of plastic, contributing to the microplastic population of the oceans.
  • Processing may inhibit biodegradation Biodegradable items may not break down in landfills if the industrial processing they went through prior to their useful days converted them into forms unrecognizable by the microbes and enzymes that facilitate biodegradation. A typical example is petroleum, which biodegrades easily and quickly in its original form: crude oil. But when petroleum is processed into plastic, it is no longer biodegradable, and as such can clog up landfills indefinitely.
  • Biodegradable/greener plastic water bottles and shopping bags are in fact extremely durable and add to the plastic debris in the ocean, instead of being a solution to the ubiquitous problem of litter in the oceans.
  • A lot of plastics labelled biodegradable, like shopping bags, will only break down in temperatures of 50C and that is not the ocean. They are also not buoyant, so they’re going to sink, and hence not exposed to UV and break down.
  • To confuse matters further, many bioplastics are made to look like real plastics and end up in the recycling bin where they cause problems for the plastic recycling process.
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