By Nina-Francesca Farac, Member-at-Large for the GCI
The impact of human activity on climate and the environment has moved beyond a mainstream headline. It has come to the point where we are considered the dominant influence on our ecosystems and geology, so much so that there is a buzzword for it: ‘Anthropocene’. Within the Anthropocene, our greatest challenge is lessening the effects of our immense footprint on Earth, mainly caused by consumption of fossil fuels and our obsession with plastics. Consequently, there has been a considerable spike in eco-friendly or ‘green’ marketing of numerous products labeled as ‘organic’, ‘biodegradable’, or ‘sustainable’ ranging from fuels, cars, skincare, all the way to clothing1. One common advertising theme for several everyday products is post-consumer recycled materials and their incorporation into the design and production of such commodities. But to what extent are the advertised claims legitimate and whether they allow for a circular economy (e.g. make, use, recover)? Here, we will cover the chemistry of popular sustainable alternatives to plastics and compare them to their non-sustainable counterparts to assess whether the ‘green’ hype is valid.
Recycling Plastics: Single-Use vs. Biodegradable vs. Compostable
Let’s start with why commonly used plastics, including single-use plastics, pose such an environmental liability. The reality of plastic recycling is that it is far less efficient in practice than one would hope. The types of plastics that can be recycled, the number of times they can be recycled and reused starts with the ubiquitous recycling symbols found on the bottom of plastic products2. A common misconception is to equate the presence of this symbol to the ability of recycling a given type of plastic; however, this is not the case. The truth is just because there is a recycling sign doesn’t necessarily mean it gets recycled3. According to Resin Identification Codes (RICs), plastics are organized into 7 categories according to the temperature at which the material has been heated, and this numerical categorization is only indicative of the kind of plastic it is, and not necessarily its recyclability (Fig. 1).
Figure 1. Resin Identification Codes (RICs) designating the seven categories of plastics, the corresponding chemical structure of each polymer, and graphical illustrations of common plastic products of each type.
In other words, just because we place it in a blue bin doesn’t mean it gets recycled. In fact, an astonishing 91% of plastics are not recycled2. You may be wondering, “how are recycling rates that low?” As with any commodity, recycling is ultimately determined by the market. If there is a demand, recyclers and companies will pay for post-consumer recyclables; but, without market demand, recycling bares no profit and placing them in a blue bin doesn’t make a difference3. For example, out of the seven categories of plastics depicted in Figure 1, only PET has a high recycling value (i.e. the price of PET scrap is high) while other plastics are projected to see a drop in recycling rates (at least in North America)4–6. In addition, certain types of everyday plastics are simply not recyclable, such as plastic bags, straws, and coffee cups (the latter is not possible unless the paper exterior is separated from the plastic interior)3; in effect, these items are tossed together in the “everything else” category #7 (Other) as non-recyclables and mainly contribute to plastic waste generation. Other limiting factors include the inability to recycle dirty plastic and how the quality of plastic is downgraded each time plastic is recycled7.
Since many everyday items are plastic-based and plastics are a staple of modern life, the most common sustainable alternative to single-use plastics are bioplastics, a.ka biodegradable plastics (Figure 2).
Figure 2. Types of biodegradable plastics in use today, their chemical structures, and their applications.
Consumer confusion often arises when the terms “biodegradable” and “compostable” are used interchangeably, although they do not convey the same concept. Biodegradable plastics are a class of polymers that can break down by the action of living organisms into natural byproducts such as water, biomass, gases (e.g. N2, CO2, H2, CH4), and inorganic salts within a reasonable amount of time8. The issue with this definition is that many plastic products eventually degrade; for instance, low density polyethylene (LDPE, category #4 – Fig. 1) has been shown to biodegrade slowly to carbon dioxide (0.35% in 2.5 years) and thus can be considered a biodegradable polymer according to the above description9. Because certain definitions of biodegradability do not state a time limit or timeframe within which degradation should occur, consumers can be easily misled, and companies can hide behind this ambiguity. It is assumed, however, that a biodegradable product has a degradation rate that is comparable to that of its application rate, i.e. the break down process is fast such that product accumulation in the environment does not occur.
To understand why certain polymers biodegrade and others do not, one has to consider the chemical structure of biodegradable polymers along with the mechanisms through which polymeric material are biodegraded. Structurally, many biodegradable polymers, both natural and synthetic, often contain amide, ester, or ether bonds10. Those deriving from biomass (i.e. agro-polymers) include polysaccharides (glycosidic bonds via condensation of a saccharide hemiacetal bond and an alcohol) and proteins (chains of amino acids linked via amide groups). The other major category is biopolyesters, which are typically derived from microorganisms or are synthetically made (Figure 3).
Figure 3. Categories of biodegradable polymers.
Mechanistically, biodegradation is defined as a process caused by biological activity, especially driven by enzymes, but it can occur simultaneously with – and sometimes even initiated by – abiotic process such as photodegradation and hydrolysis9. From the chemical perspective, biodegradation can occur in the presence of oxygen (aerobic, Equation 1.1) or in the absence of oxygen (anaeriobic, Equation 1.2), where Cpolymer represents either a polymer or a fragment from an earlier degradation process9.
Cpolymer + O2→CO2 + H2O + Cresidue + Cbiomass (Aerobic biodegradation,1.1)
Cpolymer→ CO2 + CH4 + H2O + Cresidue + Cbiomass (Anaeriobic biodegradation,1.2)
Complete biodegradation is said to occur when no Cresidue remains, and no oligomers or polymers are left to be further broken down9. As polymers represent major constituents in living cells that have a high turnover rate, i.e. they are constantly degraded in response to environmental changes and metabolic requirements, numerous microorganisms are capable of breaking down naturally occurring polymers as a result of millions of years of adaption. However, for many new synthetic polymers invented in the last 100 years (categories 1-6, Fig. 1) which find their way into the environment, such biodegradation mechanisms have yet to be developed. Other key factors affecting polymer biodegradation include copolymer composition and environmental factors such as pH, temperature, and water content9. This suggests that even if a product is made from bioplastics, it doesn’t necessarily mean it will fully decompose. If such products end up in landfills, for instance, the low oxygen content of such an environment impedes complete degradation. Furthermore, although bioplastics fall within category 7 (Fig.1), these plastics aren’t suitable for recycling and can even degrade the quality of plastic if added to a recycled mixture.
In contrast, compostable materials can break down into water, carbon dioxide, inorganic salts and biomass at the same rate as cellulose, or roughly 90 days11,12. In addition, compostable plastics must disintegrate fully and be indistinguishable in the compost while leaving no toxic material behind. Although compostable plastics appear to have more environmental benefits, this material is equally limited by an inability to biodegrade in a landfill and being incompatible with mixed recycled plastics11. When it comes to biodegradable and compostable plastics, these products make for sustainable alternatives only if they are destined for the appropriate composting facilities whereby the specific conditions for their complete biodegradation are met.
In short, today’s environmental pressures have urged the mainstream production of sustainable alternatives to an ever-growing plastic problem. Although socially responsible plastic products exist with the intention of lessening their environmental footprints, their legitimacy as sustainable alternatives lies in their proper disposal and complete integration into a given environment without any adverse or toxic effects. For a more concrete circular economy, products made of glass and metal can be recycled infinitely without losing product quality, have no need for additional virgin material in the recycling process, and do not generate waste during the process3. Ultimately, a future with a reduced plastic impact depends not only on closed-loop recycling habits, but also on consumer education and awareness about how these products are made and disposed of.
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