What is Bio-Degradable Plastic??
Biodegradable plastics are plastics that will decompose in natural aerobic (composting) and anaerobic (landfill) environments. Biodegradation of plastics can be achieved by enabling microorganisms in the environment to metabolize the molecular structure of plastic films to produce an inert humus-like material that is less harmful to the environment. They may be composed of either bioplastics, which are plastics whose components are derived from renewable raw materials, or petroleum-based plastics which utilize an additive. The use of bio-active compounds compounded with swelling agents ensures that, when combined with heat and moisture, they expand the plastic's molecular structure and allow the bio-active compounds to metabolize and neutralize the plastic.
Biodegradable plastics typically are produced in two forms: injection molded (solid, 3D shapes), typically in the form of disposable food service items, and films, typically organic fruit packaging and collection bags for leaves and grass trimmings, and agricultural mulch.
Environmental benefits of biodegradable plastics depend upon proper disposal
Biodegradable plastics are not a panacea, however. Some critics claim that a potential environmental disadvantage of certified biodegradable plastics is that the carbon that is locked up in them is released into the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas. However, biodegradable plastics from natural materials, such as vegetable crop derivatives or animal products, sequester CO2 during the phase when they're growing, only to release CO2 when they're decomposing, so there is no net gain in carbon dioxide emissions
However, certified biodegradable plastics require a specific environment of moisture and oxygen to biodegrade, conditions found in professionally managed composting facilities. There is much debate about the total carbon, fossil fuel and water usage in processing biodegradable plastics from natural materials and whether they are a negative impact to human food supply. Traditional plastics made from non-renewable fossil fuels lock up much of the carbon in the plastic as opposed to being utilized in the processing of the plastic. The carbon is permanently trapped inside the plastic lattice, and is rarely recycled.
There is concern that another greenhouse gas, methane, might be released when any biodegradable material, including truly biodegradable plastics, degrades in an anaerobic (landfill) environment. Methane production from these specially managed landfill environments are typically captured and burned to negate the release of methane in the environment. Some landfills today capture the methane biogas for use in clean inexpensive energy. Of course, incinerating non-biodegradable plastics will release carbon dioxide as well. Disposing of biodegradable plastics made from natural materials in anaerobic (landfill) environments will result in the plastic lasting for hundred of years.
The US EPA has mandated strict standards for landfill design and construction to prevent biodegradation in a landfill in the first place. The intentional production of methane from landfills is, therefore, the rare exception and not the rule for most municipal solid waste.
It is also possible that bacteria will eventually develop the ability to degrade plastics. This has already happened with nylon: two types of nylon eating bacteria, Flavobacteria and Pseudomonas, were found in 1975 to possess enzymes (nylonase) capable of breaking down nylon. While not a solution to the disposal problem, it is likely that bacteria will evolve the ability to use other synthetic plastics as well. In 2008, a 16-year-old boy reportedly isolated two plastic-consuming bacteria.
The latter possibility was in fact the subject of a cautionary novel by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis (screenwriter), the creators of the Cybermen, re-using the plot of the first episode of their Doomwatch series. The novel, Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater, written in 1971, is the story of what could happen if a bacterium were to evolve—or be artificially cultured—to eat plastics, and be let loose in a major city.
Machanism of Degradation:
Materials such as a polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) biopolymer are completely compostable in an industrial compost facility. Polylactic acid (PLA) is another 100% compostable biopolymer which can fully degrade above 60C in an industrial composting facility. Fully biodegradable plastics are more expensive, partly because they are not widely enough produced to achieve large economies of scale.
Certain additives when added to conventional plastics attract the microbes to the molecular structure by allowing the hydrocarbons to be sensed once again by microbial colonies. When oil is in the ground, the microbes attach themselves onto the hydrocarbons consuming the oil and creating natural gas, 50% of which is methane gas. When the oil is cracked 4% is used for the plastic industry, if the plastic industry did not use this 4% the 4% would be considered waste and be thrown away or removed and dumped into a waste disposal facility, another 4% is used in the generation of your consumer product. During this phase of cracking the organic compound which attracts the microbes to the molecular structure of the plastic is burnt out. The organic compound which is burnt out and other proprietary compounds which increase quorum sensing of the microbes and pH balance for the microbes are placed into the molecular structure of the plastic, to create a plastic product that can biodegrade 100 times faster than normal plastic.
Advantages and disadvantages
Under proper conditions biodegradable plastics can degrade to the point where microorganisms can metabolise them.
Degradation of oil-based biodegradable plastics may release previously stored carbon as carbon dioxide. Starch-based bioplastics produced from sustainable farming methods can be almost carbon neutral but could have a damaging effect on soil, water usage and quality, and result in higher food prices.
Over 200 million tons of plastic are manufactured annually around the world, according to the Society of Plastics Engineers.Of those 200 million tons, 26 million are manufactured in the United States. The EPA reported in 2003 that only 5.8% of those 26 million tons of plastic waste are recycled, although this is increasing rapidly.
Much of the reason for disappointing plastics recycling goals is that conventional plastics are often commingled with organic wastes (food scraps, wet paper, and liquids), making it difficult and impractical to recycle the underlying polymer without expensive cleaning and sanitizing procedures.
On the other hand, composting of these mixed organics (food scraps, yard trimmings, and wet, non-recyclable paper) is a potential strategy for recovering large quantities of waste and dramatically increase community recycling goals. Food scraps and wet, non-recyclable paper comprises 50 million tons of municipal solid waste.. Biodegradable plastics can replace the non-degradable plastics in these waste streams, making municipal composting a significant tool to divert large amounts of otherwise nonrecoverable waste from landfills.
If even a small amount of conventional plastics were to be commingling with organic materials, the entire batch of organic waste is "contaminated" with small bits of plastic that spoil prime-quality compost humus. Composters, therefore, will not accept mixed organic waste streams unless they are completely devoid of nondegradable plastics. So, because of a relatively small quantity of nondegradable plastics, a significant waste disposal strategy is stalled.
However, proponents of biodegradable plastics argue that these materials offer a solution to this problem. Certified biodegradable plastics combine the utility of plastics (lightweight, resistance, relative low cost) with the ability to completely and fully biodegrade in a compost facility. Rather than worrying about recycling a relatively small quantity of commingled plastics, these proponents argue that certified biodegradable plastics can be readily commingled with other organic wastes, thereby enabling composting of a much larger position of nonrecoverable solid waste. Commercial composting for all mixed organics then becomes commercially viable and economically sustainable. More municipalities can divert significant quantities of waste from overburdened landfills since the entire waste stream is now biodegradable and therefore easier to process.
The use of biodegradable plastics, therefore, is seen as an enabler for the complete recovery of large quantities of municipal sold waste (via aerobic composting) that were are heretofore unrecoverable by other means except land filling or incineration.