Wednesday, 15 September 2010

The Fine Plastic Line

I have been thinking for a while now about where or if a line can be drawn between acceptable and unacceptable plastics. But the more I think about it, the more vague and sticky the subject seems to become in my mind.

1. Is it ok to buy products or packaging that is made from recycled plastic?
2. Is it ok to buy products or packaging that is made from compostable or degradable plastic?

I talked a little about my concerns regarding degradable plastic in July’s post, ‘Degradable Bin Bags’. I was very impressed to receive a comment from the manufacturer I mentioned, Symphony UK, but I still have some doubts. They included within the comment a link to a YouTube video showing the degradation of their plastic bags, ‘Plastic Bag Degrading’, which was cool to see, but I need to read up more on the science and how exactly, to quote Symphony, once the bag reaches fragmentation stage, “it is no longer a plastic.” Maybe I could visit your factory, Symphony, and see it in action?

Again, I talked about this recently, in my post, 'Life's little luxuries'. For a plastic in the UK to be defined as compostable, it must adhere to the EN 13432 certification. But this means that the plastic will degrade within very specific composting conditions, which are often only present in highly controlled commercial composting operations, and not so likely to be found in my own little garden compost bin.

The burning question in my mind is whether buying products wrapped in degradable or compostable plastics is a genuinely safe alternative? It must better to buy these rather than regular plastic, but is it good or wise to support them, or better to try and find a completely plastic-free alternative?

Recycled plastics add a whole new dimension. I think it’s really good that more and more manufacturers are producing things made from recycled rather than virgin plastic, and I want to support them because I feel that it’s a really important step. Using recycled plastic to make new things makes it worthwhile for me to put what plastic I do use in my recycling bins – to not buy things that have been recycled negates at least one of the benefits of recycling stuff in the first place. And there has to be a market for for recycled materials - otherwise what's the point?

A benefit of buying recycled plastic is that no new (or very limited new) materials have gone into its production. That means reduced environmental impact on the earth and in the air. Of course, there are energy costs involved, from the collection of the original products, to the remodelling of those products, and their subsequent redistribution – I haven’t seen any specific figures on this for plastic, but as far as I’m aware, it’s generally regarded that these come out somewhere below the energy cost of quarrying for fresh resources and initial processing.

But: most plastics that can be recycled can only be recycled once (though there are companies out there working on closed loop systems), so most products made of recycled plastic have hit the end of their lifetimes. And then all the same disposal issues apply as with virgin plastic – as in, there is no way to get rid of it.

The Fine Line?
Where does the balance lie? I’m leaning toward this order of preference:

1. No plastic (duh!)
2. Recycled or easily recyclable plastic is better than compostable plastic
3. Compostable or easily recyclable plastic is better than degradable plastic
4. Degradable plastic is better than ‘regular’ non-recyclable plastic
5. Never buy any plastic that’s not either recycled or recyclable


  1. Hi,

    Im Manuel, cofounder of Plastic Pollution Coalition. Email me please at manuel at Plastic Pollution Coalition dor org (all properly formatted, all together, lowercases, etc etc)

    Thank you. Keep up the good work! :-D


  2. Apart from the fact that degradable plastic doesn't tend to degrade in a typical landfill situation, if it does degrade that results in lots of little bits of plastic floating around for animals to ingest, I believe.

    It's not at all straightforward. If only plastic didn't have a habit of creeping up on you unawares.