Day 22 – WASTE NOT…

What are you doing about bin bags? Now there’s a good question!

Obviously, paper bags just don’t cut it for dealing with often soggy household waste, but the good news is that even after only a couple of weeks of the Plastic Challenge, the amount of waste in our kitchen bin has been reduced enormously. But we do still need a bin bag!

We currently use biodegradable bags made from vegetable starch for food waste and compostables. We re-use bags such as loo roll  or other product packaging (not from this month!) in our bathroom bin, and I used to buy recycled-plastic bin bags for our big kitchen bin.

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What are “degradable” plastics?

A few months ago (before I even knew about the Plastic Challenge) I was suddenly unable to get hold of recycled bin bags. It seemed I couldn’t get them anywhere (does anyone know why?) The only alternative I could find were “degradable plastic” bin liners so I bought them, figuring they must be good as they appeared to have replaced the recycled plastic ones in all the usual outlets.

I was slightly uncomfortable about them, and then alarm bells started ringing when I thought about what they were: degradable plastic that breaks down really quickly. Not “biodegradable”. Surely, this could be no better for the environment and would simply mean more micro-plastics getting in to the ecosystem even quicker?  Could it be worse then? At least you can pick up an intact plastic bag: I needed to investigate further as this actually was keeping me awake at night.

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Plastic-wrapped food waste outside a well-known chicken fast-food chain.

Photo credit: Rick Powell

The “degradable” plastic bags I have been buying are made by a British company called Symphony Environmental Technologies PLC and the degradable plastic relies on an additive called “d2w”.  I found an old blog questioning whether or not this product was actually a “Bittersweet Symphony” (geddit!) which makes interesting reading, but all in all, I feel more comfortable about using these “degradable” plastic bin bags after reading around.

So, what is d2w?

It’s a compound added to plastic which behaves like a ticking time-bomb, so a date is set at which point the plastic will start to degrade e.g. 18 months from manufacture. Imagine the bag has been blown into the corner of a field, or a remote beach; It starts to break down and the d2w kicks in. In the presence of oxygen the additive changes the plastic by breaking molecular chains, turning it into material which can be bio-assimilated by micro-organisms (so they can use the hydrogen and oxygen in the same way they would with a biodegrading leaf). So essentially, the plastic becomes biodegradable.

The manufacturers make a good point which is that plastic is a huge part of our lives and there are some jobs that plastic simply does better than other materials (being a household bin bag is one of them). Apparently, the d2w degradable plastics can also be recycled alongside normal plastics, which means they’re not going to mess up big recycling schemes.

Even famous naturalist, Chris Packham, appears to advocate these oxy-biodegradable plastics, although in this video he looks a bit like he’s been kidnapped and forced to talk (I’m kidding – please don’t sue me!)

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Degradable plastic bin bags 

For now, degradable plastic seems to be the most environmentally-friendly option for bin bags, and if it means that large swathes of plastic litter are bio-assimilated, it would solve both the physical and visual plastic menace we struggle with across the world.

But, there’s still part of me which is still not entirely sold on d2w degradable plastic. I’m wondering if they will start degrading in my kitchen cupboard for starters as I can’t see a “self-destruct” date on them, but my main concern is that they are NOT intended to degrade “under anaerobic conditions in landfill” which seems curious, particularly considering they’re being sold as bin bags, which are all destined for…you’ve guessed it… landfill.