Are Biodegradable Bags Really Biodegradable And Better Than Plastic?

All this time, we thought that by segregating out trash into biodegradable and compostable, we’re already doing our part to help save the environment. Well, it turns out that although our intentions in doing so are right, it’s a little more complicated than that.

That’s because while it’s quite easy to separate biodegradable waste from non-biodegradable waste, how they are disposed matters, too. And most of the time biodegradable wastes are  thrown away in plastic bags and “compostable” cups that stick around, long after the wastes have broken down into the soil. If they’re all put in an industrial size recycler, then that won’t be a problem at all because the workers there will ensure everything will break down into their simpler forms. But in normal pits? Not for a lot of years.

“In day to day living, [these labels are] misleading. When it says biodegradable or compostable, what’s the time frame that you think of for a product in the natural environment? For me, it would be days to months. As soon as you start to say two years to three years, does that have any meaningful advantage to the environment? I’d argue not,” Imogen Napper, a marine scientist who led the research highlighting the problem of confusing labelling, said.

During the study, Napper, along with her colleagues, tested how degradable bioplastic bags (biodegradable, compostable and plastic) really are when subjected to different conditions brought about by soil, outdoor air and seawater. After spending three years in seawater and soil, only the compostable bags were able to carry items. When placed underground for 27 months, the bags easily tore apart due to their weakened state.

In theory, “biodegradable” and “compostable” should mean the same. Soil can break down the product at the same rate as food waste. However, one of the problems present nowadays is that the labeling itself on these products is confusing.

The term biodegradable these days is more of a greenwashed term, intentionally misused by companies to make consumers feel good about buying their prouducts. But truthfully speaking, the term "biodegradable" simply means that in an unspecified period of time, the product will break down. That's a vast difference from products labeled as "verified compostable," which means that if you send them to a facility, they will break down within 90-180 days. 

Thankfully, agencies are slowly taking action. Of course, we still need to do our part, mainly with how we choose to dispose our waste. Nevertheless, the move for honest labeling for both compostable and biodegradable products is a great step toward a greener direction.