The Truth About Biodegradable Plastic Bags

Biodegradable plastic bags.

Plastic bags have been a critical issue for many years as scientists have discovered their dangerous effects on the environment. (Image: Cateyeperspective via Dreamstime)

Plastic bags have been a critical issue for many years as scientists have discovered their dangerous effects on the environment. Given plastic bags’ harmful effects, biodegradable plastic bags were offered as a solution to this problem.

However, adopting a resolution could be ineffective. Scientists decided to dig deeper to discover the truth about biodegradable plastic bags. So if you believe that biodegradable plastic bags are friendly to the environment, you might want to read further to learn the truth.

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Plastic bags and the harm they cause

Some 500 billion plastic bags are being used worldwide annually, and the number of bags found in the stomachs of aquatic life and birds is rising.

The average time the average person uses a plastic bag before they are thrown away is just 12 minutes. After that 12 minutes, a standard plastic bag will remain undecomposed for hundreds of thousands of years.

Given plastic bags’ environmental damage, alternatives such as biodegradable plastic bags have been developed to help solve these issues.

However, the problem with these solutions is that they are believed to be effective, especially regarding biodegradable plastic bags. Rarely do people question the effectiveness of biodegradable products.

The average time the average person uses a plastic bag before they are thrown away is just 12 minutes. (Image: Cateyeperspective via Dreamstime)

Biodegradable plastic bags put to the test

Researchers from the University of Plymouth’s International Marine Litter Research Unit published a study in the journal Environmental Science and Technology that raises the question of whether biodegradable formulations can be relied on to offer a sufficiently advanced rate of degradation and, therefore, a realistic solution to the problem of plastic litter.

Imogen Napper, who led the study, said: After three years, I was amazed that any bag could still hold a load of shopping. For biodegradable bags to be able to do that was the most surprising. When you see something labeled in that way, I think you automatically assume it will degrade more quickly than conventional bags. But, after three years at least, our research shows that might not be the case.”

As part of the study, the researchers:

  • Buried biodegradable plastic bags in the soil
  • Submerged biodegradable bags in the ocean
  • Exposed biodegradable bags to open air and sunlight
  • Stored biodegradable bags in a dark location in a lab

When it was time to check the condition of the bags after three years, it was found that all remained intact in all four environments. They also discovered that the bags left underwater could still hold a whole load of groceries.

The tests revealed that biodegradable plastics did not decompose in three years, no matter their environment.

The types of biodegradable bags used in the study included those made from:

  • Oyster shells
  • Oxo-biodegradable plastics
  • Plant-based materials

The oxo-biodegradable plastic bag contains certain additives that speed up the process of the plastic breaking down. The study, however, found them to be ineffective.

Plastic bags have been a critical issue for many years as scientists have discovered their dangerous effects on the environment. (Image: Tampatra1 via Dreamstime)

Another problem with biodegradable plastic bags

There’s another reason why biodegradable plastics can harm the environment. Unlike regular plastics, there are few practical applications for biodegradable materials. Recycling facilities can put everyday plastics to good use, but the options are minimal for biodegradable plastics.

The study’s co-author Richard Thompson, a marine biologist from the University of Plymouth, suggested that using biodegradable plastic bags could cause more harm than good to our environment due to the false sense that they are a better alternative.

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