The plastic spoon you mindlessly throw in the garbage after eating a frozen yogurt will likely arrive at a landfill within a few days. Once there, the spoon will be entombed with tons of other garbage in an airless, lightless, moisture-free space for the foreseeable future.
Obviously, the landfill is not the best solution. It would be better if the plastic in the spoon degraded on its own, instead of cluttering the environment for the next who-knows-how-many years.
These days, scientists and engineers have come up with remarkable new materials that serve as biodegradable solutions to some of our pressing environmental problems.
In fact, many of these biodegradable plastics are already being used for food service and packaging needs.
What do we mean by biodegradable? The Federal Trade Commission states that any unqualified claim of a material being degradable, biodegradable or photodegradable should be backed by competent and reliable scientific evidence that the product or package will break down completely and return to nature within a reasonably short time after disposal.
To clarify claims of a product being biodegradable, the FTC states that manufacturers should inform consumers about the product’s ability to biodegrade in the environment where it is likely be disposed and the expected rate and extent of degradation. For example, if the product will likely end up in the local landfill, it can’t be labeled biodegradable unless it will biodegrade under those conditions.
To get a feel for some of the progress made, here’s a snapshot of some of the materials being used in industry today:
Plastarch Material: This material is made from corn starch along with other compostable ingredients that combine to create a plastic-like substance. It can withstand high temperature (meaning it can go in the microwave) and the HL-300 variety is compostable and biodegradable.
Biograde: This material is manufactured by the German company, FKuR Kunststoff GmbH, as an alternative to polystyrene. The material, which is based on a cellulose blend of ingredients, can be used in a variety of different roles, including writing utensils, disposable cutlery, cups and bottles.
TephaFLEX: This material is often used for medical purposes where it can degrade and be absorbed by the body. Tepha, the company that manufactures the material, says TephaFLEX is produced through a patented recombinant DNA technology. FDA-approved product uses for the material include surgical suture, surgical mesh, surgical film and a composite mesh.
Ingeo Plastic: This material is derived from plant sugar. At the moment, the manufacturer, NatureWorks, uses corn to obtain the sugar but the company says it may use other sources including agricultural waste and non-food plants. Products made from Ingeo are eligible for industrial composting, recycling, feedstock recovery or clean incineration (the smoke is nontoxic and the residue can be used as fertilizer). It will biodegrade under conditions at an industrial composting site but not on its own.
Have other thoughts on biodegradable solutions for certain waste management problems? Leave us a note in the comments below.