With so much interest across the world in reducing environmental footprints and finding alternatives to plastic, many people are wondering which is best when it comes to paper, biodegradable or compostable?
When it comes to plastic alternatives, most alternatives are a better choice! However, compostable is typically the top choice in terms of environmental impact due to its ability to completely break down into natural matter in the right disposal method. It also does depend on usage, for example, if you need a stronger bag, then biodegradable will be stronger than both paper and compostable.
What Is Paper A Good Alternative For?
Paper is made from trees and can be recycled, so surely it presents a GREAT alternative to plastic, right? You can use paper for many plastic alternatives depending on usage and strength required. Paper is not necessarily the strongest when it comes to bags, however boxes and packing boxes can be really strong (think cardboard).
Historically, paper has been used for packaging such as lollies/confectionary, pet food, dried food, cards and carry bags. You can use paper for gift bags, shopping bags, carrying or storing small amounts of items or stationary.
You can use paper in many areas, including:
- Carry bags
- Gift bags
- Dry food
- Pet food
- Stationary storage
- Home storage
- Coffee or drink cups – note these are often lined with other substances so can reduce their capacity for recycling
- Takeaway food that is dry OR lined with other substances to prevent leakage or softening.
Ultimately, it’s important to understand that if paper is lined with wax, aluminum etc, it may impact its ability to be recycled or composted. Understand if you’re making a better choice or the same choice when choosing paper alternatives.
What Is Compostable?
Let’s take a look at what compostable plastic is and what it’s made from. It’s growing in such popularity so much that I think it’s key to understand what it is and how to dispose of this plastic. So to start, compostable plastic is classed as a bioplastic and is made from 100 per cent natural ingredients.
A next-generation plastic, compostable plastic is renewable and will completely break down into natural matter when disposed of correctly. The materials used to create compostable plastic will vary but they are typically made from renewable items such as potato, corn, soy protein, cellulose and tapioca starches.
So by choosing compostable, you can be assured that these natural ingredients also mean that compostable plastics are non-toxic and will decompose in a worm farm or composter (home or industrial). This is great news for the environment, wildlife and landfill contributions. AND your compostable plastic won’t leave behind toxic residue or microplastics.
It’s worth looking into your compostable plastic options as many companies are now offering compostable plastic alternatives at good prices. These can be found online and in many stores. Consider where you can make some small changes in your everyday life away from traditional plastic.
What Is Biodegradable?
Biodegradable plastic is often made by extracting the sugar from plants like corn and sugarcane. These are then converted into polylactic acids. Another way to make biodegradable plastic is to engineer it from microorganisms which are made to break down the plastic quicker.
This type of plastic alternative is also a ‘next-generation plastic,’ however, can sometimes be classed as not completely 100 per cent eco-friendly due to them producing levels of methane when they break down and leaving behind some toxicity when they decompose.
Biodegradable plastic is similar to compostable but does not completely break down into natural matter. It is made to break down faster with specially designed microbes that speed up the decomposing process. Biodegradable plastic is also often known as ‘bio-based’ plastic as it still contains some toxic chemicals, unlike compostable plastic.
What Compostable and Biodegradable Products Are Popular?
Biodegradable and compostable plastics are classed as ‘eco-friendly’, being that these types of plastics are more sustainable and environmentally friendly than traditional plastics which cause several issues for the environment.
Of course, eco-friendly products can also be products that are recyclable such as your soft drinks and water bottles or upcycling your products at home such as furniture, clothes and toys or electronics. Reusing anything that you can either in your own home or through donation are also great ways to be eco-friendly.
Some products that are popular include:
– Carry/shopping bags
– Trash bags
– Pet poop bags
– Coffee or drink cups
– Takeaway food containers
– Toiletry and other packaging.
These alternatives are mostly readily available in grocery stores, hardware or pet stores (for trash and pet poop bags) and online stores.
Which Alternative Is Best?
So you want to make the switch to bioplastics such as compostable and biodegradable plastic? Great first step in reducing your environmental footprint. However, quality and strength can play a key role in the decision on which to choose. Compostable trash bags are made from natural components, meaning sometimes they will break a little easier than traditional plastic, but many of the causes can be avoided.
Biodegradable has some traditional plastic chemicals yet also has natural components, making the strength similar to compostable yet a little stronger. So you can use these for example, for more uses, heavier items and longer carrying distances.
However, both compostable or biodegradable trash bags can leak easier than traditional plastic due to rips or tears caused by sharp fingernails, being in a trash bin with rubbish inside for too long (weakening the bag), sitting on a shelf or in storage too long, tearing above the perforation or just simply because they are too thin for the usage.
Bioplastic bags are great for the environment, but the natural materials that make up these items such as trash bags can make them less resilient than traditional plastics. This is ok, presuming you know how to take care of these plastics.
Compostable or biodegradable plastic bags can leak for several reasons:
- Sharp fingernails
- Too thin
- Tear at the perforation
- 100% Compostable
- Too long in the trash bin
- Has been on the shelf for too long.
It’s important that you take care of your alternative plastic bags and avoid the above where possible to maximize the usefulness of the products. Use them quickly, beware of sharp objects or nails, be mindful when tearing a new bag and ensure you compost them correctly.
Why Shouldn’t We Use Plastic?
Traditional plastic – such as you’ll see in everything from food packaging, carry bags and trash bags to toys and building products – contributes negatively to our environment in many ways. Unfortunately, it’s clogging up many landfills, marine environments and taking decades to centuries to break down!
Traditional plastic contributes environmental issues including:
- Landfill contributions.
- Pollutes marine environments
- Toxic leaching into the environment (soil, water).
- Can be toxic for wildlife, animals and humans (at some levels, depending on the plastic).
- Uses raw materials such as crude oil which are not good for the environment.
- Use higher levels of energy and water for manufacturing.
- Releases greenhouse emissions into the environment during manufacturing.
Most of our traditional plastics can’t be recycled and contribute to not only landfill but are toxic for wildlife and soil. Plastic can take decades, centuries or even thousands of years to break down.
Benefits Of Alternatives To Plastic?
Although there are plastic alternatives on the market that are growing in popularity and availability, it is currently not possible to ban plastic completely or stop using it. Until there are alternatives for everything from building supplies and medical implants to water bottles and toys, it’s not possible to ban plastic in its entirety.
These alternatives also need to be cost-effective for manufacturing and purchase as well as maintain the same, strong properties of traditional plastic. Plastic is used in so many different areas of life that it would take many decades or centuries to replace plastic with viable alternatives.
Other disadvantages can include:
- People will switch to alternatives that aren’t any better – for example, paper bags use large amounts of trees and energy to produce as a plastic alternative.
- Plastics aren’t the biggest issue with pollution – solvents and cleaning chemicals also pose a great risk to the ocean and environment.
- Switching from plastics may encourage people to be less eco-minded in other choices. For example, they have recycled or used compostable plastics so don’t consider which cleaning chemicals or how much meat they purchase.
- Weaker or less resilient alternatives in important items – compostable and biodegradable are often a bit weaker, with bags ripping easier or not holding liquid. For important items such as packaging, medical supplies or implants, this could pose an issue.
Again, it all comes down to research, understanding and commitment to your choice. Being prepared will help you get the most out of your eco-friendly switch.
So, with all of this information? Why choose a plastic alternative and which is best? Reducing your environmental footprint is key and means that you are contributing less toxicity and pollution to the world from landfill, wildlife impact, marine life effects and soil pollution.
If you’re looking for a plastic alternative then you’re on the right track and most alternatives present a better choice! However, compostable is typically the top choice in terms of environmental impact due to its ability to completely break down into natural matter in the right disposal method.
It also uses less water, electricity and releases less greenhouse gas during the manufacturing process. If you dispose of in a worm farm or composter, you will also end up with some great fertilizer! However, your choice of plastic alternative also does depend on usage, for example, if you need a stronger bag, then biodegradable will be stronger than both paper and compostable.
Paper also relies on growing trees and cutting them down which can also create more use of electricity, water, release of greenhouse gas and utilize natural resources to an unsustainable rate.