A recent report has shed light on the concerning persistence of seemingly eco-friendly utensils labeled as “compostable” and “biodegradable.” The study, conducted by the 5 Gyres Institute, investigated the breakdown of 22 items, including forks, pens, bottles, and bags, across various environments over a 64-week period.
Initiated in 2021, the study placed these items in diverse settings in Florida, California, and Maine, encompassing oceanic and desert landscapes. The materials tested comprised traditional petroleum-based plastics, bioplastics sourced from renewable biomass like vegetable fats and corn starch, as well as natural elements such as bamboo and paper.
While anticipatedly, petroleum-based plastics exhibited persistence across all environments, the bioplastics displayed varying rates of degradation. Notably, a PHA straw degraded swiftly in the ocean, akin to bamboo or paper. Conversely, its decomposition on land only initiated towards the study’s conclusion.
A PHA bottle, however, exhibited slow breakdown both on land and in water across the three states, retaining almost complete integrity even in Maine’s colder ocean waters throughout the study duration.
Generally, items left on land took longer to decompose compared to those exposed to marine environments. Moreover, higher temperatures expedited the decomposition process, with thinner items exhibiting faster breakdown.
This study raises concerns amidst the ongoing plastic pollution crisis impacting global ecosystems. Annually, over 400 million tons of plastic are manufactured, with a substantial portion, approximately 14 million tons, finding its way into oceans, posing threats to marine life including seabirds, whales, fish, and turtles.
The ramifications extend to humans as well, with microplastics infiltrating common consumables like tap water, beer, and salt. Ingestion of microplastics poses significant health risks, contributing to developmental, reproductive, neurological, and immune disorders.
Despite companies promoting single-use bioplastics as eco-friendly alternatives, this research underscores the enduring environmental impact of these supposedly sustainable options. Lisa Erdle, the director of science and innovation at the 5 Gyres Institute, emphasized that irrespective of the material, an environmental cost is inherent in their usage.