There’s been plenty of talk recently about sustainable living, correctly disposing of rubbish and so on, but how much do we really know about our trash? Pretty much everything decomposes over time, even plastic, but different objects decompose at different rates and you owe it to yourself and future generations to know more about the waste we create.
Compostable vs Biodegradable
Before getting right into it, it’s worth pointing out the difference between compostable and biodegradable. Compostable refers to products that break down into natural elements, thus causing no harm to the environment in a process that usually lasts around 90 days. More than just being not harmful, compostable items break down into what is known as ‘humus’ which carries lots of nutrients for plant life.
On the other hand, biodegradable refers to just any material which breaks down and decomposes in the environment. The twist comes via the fact that pretty much anything is biodegradable, but could leave toxic chemicals behind when decomposing. Even plastics will eventually decompose, give or take a couple hundred or thousand years.
Here’s a list of estimates
Cliché as it may sound, but some of these items will surprise you. Leather shoes take around 30 years to become part of the soil. Foamed plastic cups? 50 years. Styrofoam essentially never fully decomposes. And the cigarette butts that dominate Maltese beaches in the summer and pavements throughout the year? 10 years, sometimes more.
There’s a lot more that can be added to the list, but it should be enough to get people thinking; what alternatives should we be using? In terms of cutlery, for example, plastic should not even be an option. There’s been an increase in wooden cutlery, which is OK for single-use. Wood is not only biodegradable and eventually compostable, but wooden cutlery tends to be made from recycled material, so it’s a highly sustainable substitute.
Putting off the need to dump items into dedicated waste disposal areas is key to putting off the above-mentioned time spans. Re-using and recycling remain priorities, especially when certain plastics can only be recycled a couple of times. On the other hand, glass, certain metals and aluminium can be recycled endlessly.
Bioplastics: the next option
Made from marine or plant-based materials (such as corn and sugarcane), bioplastics can replace petroleum-based plastics and are considered to be more environmentally friendly. Their production requires less use of fossil fuels and create fewer greenhouse gases too. Some bioplastics can be created from potato peels, for example, which means one less item is being left to decompose.
However, not all bioplastics are biodegradable, despite what the name might suggest. The bioplastic polyethene terephthalate can be recycled, however, it is not biodegradable. If this has got your head in a bit of a spin wondering what to do, we don’t blame you. So we’ll simplify as best we can because it is a bit of a conundrum.
So, what should we do?
The debate about which packaging (recyclable, biodegradable or compostable) is best for the environment will rage on because there’s no single answer. All these solutions have pros and cons, so it’s most likely a case of getting the best out of all of them. On your end, avoid single-use plastics, keep informed about what can actually be recycled and what cannot, and when possible, choose to reuse. Mother Earth will thank you for it.
And if you’re still wondering about the nappy problem, there are alternatives. Though as far as we know there are no fully 100% biodegradable nappies, there are options that are up to 80% biodegradable. It’s not perfect, but it’s certainly better than nothing at all. The other option is to switch to cloth nappies that are washable and reusable and come with plenty of benefits.
First and foremost, they’re kinder on the planet because they don’t go straight to landfill after one use. They’re also kinder on your wallet, even when taking into account water and electricity washing costs since you don’t have to buy a new set each time. For the full run-down on cloth nappies and how to clean them, just click here and here, and you’ll find all you need to know!