“Biodegradable” Plastics Don’t Actually Disintegrate in the Ocean

Plastics are horrible for the environment, primarily because they take forever to decompose. To address this situation, scientists developed a biodegradable version of plastic. It’s an invention that sounds too good to be true – and now researchers are discovering that it is in fact too good to be true.

You know the news is bad when a report on biodegradable plastic by the United Nations Environment Program starts putting the word “biodegradable” in quotation marks. The problem is that while this special plastic biodegrades under ideal conditions, ideal conditions aren’t found many places that plastic ends up. For example, the temperature needs to reach at least 122° F for an extended period of time for some plastic to start breaking down. Global warming may be on the rise, but at this point you won’t find that kind of heat in nature all that often.

That’s especially true when it comes to the ocean where plastic tends to accumulate – as much as 44 billion pounds of plastic enters the ocean each year. The hope was that biodegradable plastic that found its way into the oceans would disappear quickly, but researchers have discovered that there’s plenty of “biodegradable” plastic sitting in saltwater lingering far longer than it would in other environments.

Unfortunately, the oceans are not hot enough to help the plastic break down. On top of that, there’s less oxygen available in the ocean to help with biodegradation. To make matters even worse, the plastic that sinks below the surface receives less exposure to UV rays, which is also critical to the biodegradation process. As a result, plastic that was believed to disappear in months actually takes multiple years.

That’s still better than regular plastic, though, Michigan State University professor Ramani Narayan pointed out to Vice. Considering that it takes some plastic centuries to finally dissolve in the ocean, biodegradable plastic has got to be considered preferable. However, the lax attitude the public has taken toward biodegradable plastic is dangerous. People assume they can improperly dispose of bottles and the like without repercussions, but this “magic” plastic is harming the ocean and marine life, too.

“Essentially, the ocean is being used as a waste basket and the waste basket is getting fuller and fuller,” said Peter Kershaw, one of the authors of the UN’s report. “So the impacts of that plastic litter are just going to keep on increasing.”

This finding is yet another reason why biodegradable plastic is not living up to the hype. Previously, we’ve learned that well-intentioned people often put biodegradable plastics into recycling bins with other types of plastics. Since the biodegradable material is different than regular plastic, it actually makes the resulting recycled plastic product weaker.

Though the latest report isn’t optimistic, it does serve as an important call to action. Since we can’t assume any plastic will biodegrade in the ocean, the best course of action is to consume less plastic in our every day lives and take deliberate steps to prevent plastic trash from entering sewers and waterways.

Photo credit: Thinkstock

52 comments

Melania Padilla
Melania P1 years ago

Just use a reusable bottle! I have years without buying bottled water or whatever. Put a tax on plastic bottles!

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Melania Padilla
Melania P1 years ago

Just use a reusable bottle! I have years without buying bottled water or whatever. Put a tax on plastic bottles!

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Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus1 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

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Marie P.
Marie P1 years ago

Appalling behaviour by our society.

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Arlene C.
Arlene C1 years ago

Merci

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Neville B.
Neville B1 years ago

Surely technology is capable of creating plastic containers and wrap more highly sensitive to UV light? If their shelf life was, say, twice the 'use by' date of products with that requirement, or perhaps a set number of months, it would reduce the environmental impact.

Legislation on this, littering, filtering and recycling would help, and more education for us the public on these issues.

Personal choice to avoid the short-term convenience of plastics and over-packaging would also help. Kudos to Fred L. for going further!

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Rea p.
Rea p1 years ago

thank you

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Patricia Harris
John Taylor1 years ago

Fred L., This is exactly the kind of thing I was expecting! Anyone who notices any debris floating in the oceans, or other bodies of water should have them removed, and I'm so happy that you are one of those people who would do that!

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susan thornton
susan Thornton1 years ago

Disgusting humans using the ocean as a trash can

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Fred L.
Fred L1 years ago

Every time I surf, I try to pick up as much plastic and other opala (trash) as I can. When the winds are strong and offshore, a lot of plastic bags, wrappers, etc. get blown into the ocean. The amount of crap I pick up is insignificant, but I do it as a gesture of respect for the ocean, and to feel better about myself. Incidentally, O'ahu's plastic bag ban is a joke. http://www.staradvertiser.com/newspremium/20150707__Environmentalist_angry_at_sight_of_plastic_bags.html?id=312003981

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