Which plastics are best?

FACT: Plastics can take up to 400 years to break down. Almost all the plastics ever made can still be found somewhere.

Plastic manufacturers throw around words like degradable, compostable and biodegradable, but what do these really mean? These are all words that mean that the plastics break down, right? There is a difference between all of these and they should play a role in your purchasing decisions.

Biodegradable products break down from naturally occurring microorganisms over a period of time. They are often made from plant and animal sources and some examples of biodegradable products include paper, vegetable scraps and some plastics made from ingredients like corn starch.

BUT: When added to landfills in the oxygen depleted environment, biodegradable waste breaks down under anaerobic conditions and creates methane, which is a greenhouse gas with over 62 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide. Biodegradable waste can also contain toxins such as heavy metals and pesticides.

Degradable plastics are oil based and break down through chemical reactions rather that the activity of microorganisms, so they can degrade in an anaerobic environment into water, carbon dioxide, biomass and trace elements.

Compostable plastics are close to biodegradable plastics but "greener", according to a Green Living Tips article. For plastic to be considered compostable, it must be able to break down into carbon dioxide, water and biomass at the same rate as paper. It also needs to look like compost, should support plant life, and not produce any toxic material. Compostable products are usually made from plant materials like corn, potato, cellulose, soy and sugar.

THE BOTTOM LINE: In some scenarios the fossil fuel input is greater in making these "green plastics" when compared to the equivalent in crude oil basted plastic product.

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