New Study Says We Should Nix Biodegradable Additives in Our Plastics

Plastics play a huge role in all of our lives. From our phones to our shampoo bottles, most of us consume and throw away over one billion pounds of plastics every year. However, in recent years additives in plastic have promised consumers that the product will be broken down and biodegrade naturally. Well, according to a new scientific study, this is simply not true.

The study, which was carried out by Michigan State University, explored the most common methods of trash disposal to rate the effectiveness of these additives. The first method left plastics out in the open air (think composting). The next method studied how plastics biodegraded in an anaerobic or non oxygenated atmosphere (think bottom of the landfill) and for the third method, scientists simply buried plastics in the soil.

The study length was three years long and compared five of the most common additives used to make plastics biodegradable. According to Rafael Auras, the co-author of the study, “There was no difference between the plastics mixed with the additives we tested and the ones without.”

In the abstract of the study, it becomes increasingly clear that the average ways that we, the consumer, dispose of these biodegradable plastics is not doing the environment any favors:

Biodegradation was evaluated in compost, anaerobic digestion, and soil burial environments. None of the five different additives tested significantly increased biodegradation in any of these environments. Thus, no evidence was found that these additives promote and/or enhance biodegradation of PE or PET polymers. So, anaerobic and aerobic biodegradation are not recommended as feasible disposal routes for nonbiodegradable plastics containing any of the five tested biodegradation-promoting additives.

The study’s authors say that manufacturing companies need to start telling consumers the truth about the products they are using. Further, for those that worry about additives in their plastic products, especially in containers they drink or eat food from, it only cements the fear that unnecessary compounds are being added to the mix.

So what’s a well meaning person living in today’s modern world to do? Of course cutting down on plastic bags is always an option. Some countries, such as Rwanda, go so far as to ban them entirely, including plastic bags sourced outside of the country. In fact, it’s considered normal procedure for customs agents to go through luggage at the Rwandan border, and if they find any plastic bags, they will dispose of them right there before you can proceed into the country.

It’s true that these bans have worked to decrease our plastic trash. Yet so many items are made of plastic that it would be nearly impossible to remove it from our lives entirely.

In recent years, science has found a few methods that help break down the components of plastics. Fungi, as reported on at Care2, can be used to actually turn plastics into consumable food. However, as great as this method is, it’s not a realistic solution for our everyday trash issues.

So scientists have turned back to nature for the solution. Enter the waxworm. This pre-caterpillar larvae is known for being able to eat through beeswax in the wild. However, when exposed to plastics, it seems two strains of these larvae can also digest plastics. Scientists are now looking into ways to harness the microbes inside the guts of waxworms to help naturally degrade plastics.

However for now, when it comes to so-called “biodegradable” additives for plastics, scientists are warning consumers to not believe the hype, and recycle rather than assuming a product is safe to throw away.

Photo Credit: Kuba Bożanowski / Wikimedia Commons

43 comments

Sarah Hill
Sarah H3 years ago

Back in the day, nothing came in plastic. We bought our "Coke" in glass bottles which we took back to the store so they could sanitize them and reuse them.

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Siyus Copetallus
Siyus C3 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

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Carol C.
Carol C3 years ago

Discouraging, but good to know. Thank you for this post.

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Angela K.
Angela K3 years ago

Thanks for sharing

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Martha Ferris
Martha F3 years ago

Thanks for the info!

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Angie P.
Angie P3 years ago

Thanks for sharing.

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Fi T.
Past Member 3 years ago

Treasure our resources

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Mike S.
Mike s3 years ago

Good article, but how did nobody notice the spelling mistake in the headline before the article was posted!

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Nimue Pendragon
Nimue Michelle P3 years ago

noted

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Becka T.
Becka T3 years ago

Thank you

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