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| be Waste Wise | May 27, 2022

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Are bio-plastics a solution to ocean garbage patches?

Are bio-plastics a solution to ocean garbage patches?

Bio-plastics have a role, but there is no standard to say what makes a bio-plastic which truly degrades in the ocean. - Nicholas Mallos


Full-length article and recording

Managing Plastic Waste and Mitigating the Garbage Patches

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Thanks to the Earth Engineering Center for making this knowledge sharing possible

Earth Engineering Center, Columbia University


Presented by:

Daniella Russo (Co-founder, Plastic Pollution Coalition);

Katrina Mitchell (Co-founder, be Waste Wise)


Beth Terry (Author, Plastic Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too);

Dr. Nicholas Mallos (Marine Debris Specialist, Ocean Conservancy)


Why can’t we focus on bio-plastics as a solution?

Beth Terry (Plastic Free book): I think bio-plastics have a place, but they are complicated. First of all, there are some bio-plastics that are made out of plants and those are not necessarily biodegradable. There are also plastics made from fossil sources like oil and natural gas that might be biodegradable. There are some that just have some kind of mystery additive within them that supposedly causes them to break down, but they probably just break down into smaller and smaller pieces. So, all the different types of “bio-plastics” are very complicated which is why I explained the different kinds in my book. I agree with you Daniella, when you are talking about single-use disposable items. Even if these things are biodegradable, they still are requiring huge amounts of materials and energy to produce just for a single use. So, from that environmental perspective I think it is important to focus on reusable items over bio-plastics.

There are some bio-plastics, one in particular which is called PHA. I’ve spoken to Bill, at Algalita about it and it is the one bio-plastic I think that has been shown to actually break down in sea water. It takes a long time but I think, if plastic is going to end up in the ocean I would rather have plastic that will actually biodegrade. So, this is a conversation that I have with people a lot which is, how do we promote reuse and promote reducing our consumption, while at the same time supporting efforts to create bio-plastics from plants that will biodegrade and recycling systems for the plastics that we do end up with, without just encouraging more consumption. I think it is kind of tricky and I would like to hear other people’s ideas about that.


Dr. Nicholas Mallos (Ocean Conservancy): Yes, I think that the final point is very well taken. I think if we can look at the future where bio-plastics have a role. I think they have a role, if we can demonstrate that a plastic can wholly break down biologically in the ocean not mechanically and that is just going to fragment into smaller and smaller pieces at a faster rate. But actually the chemical components of it dissolve and oxidize into the sea water. I still think at that point the bio-plastics have a role as a safe measure. So, if all other medication efforts fail and plastics do end up in the ocean, then they will expedite the threat of which they pose to relate will quickly dissipate into the ocean. With that said, there are major barriers ahead.

One thing that stands in the way is that there actually is no current standard that says what makes something biodegradable or a bio-plastic. So, one person’s labeling about bio-plastic may need something very different and there’s no process that demonstrates an “ocean plastic”, which is is truly degradable in the ocean. From a technical standpoint I think there are barriers that lie ahead. From a sustainability standpoint, bio plastics take up extraordinary amounts of energy for their production. There are externalities associated with them just like traditional petroleum-based plastics and there still is oil or another non-renewable resource required to produce those.

So there are some challenges ahead in just from a consumer standpoint, you know I would echo you’re concerned Daniella, that when something is labeled bio-plastic or biodegradable or ocean friendly plastic, it sends a message whether directly or indirectly to consumers that if their product ends on the ground and doesn’t quite make it in the trash can it’s not going to pose any harm. I think everyone on this call here and many people that are here listening to this know that, that is not the case. So, I’m very hesitant to endorse anything that may perpetuate the disposal of plastics into trash cans or those that may also end up in the ocean.




Book: Plastic Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too (buying options)

Websites: Plastic Pollution Coalition;

My Plastic Free Life;

Algalita Marine Research Institute;

Ocean Conservancy

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