More than 8.3 billion tons of plastic has been produced since the 1950s and it is astonishing to learn that only 9% of all plastic waste gets recycled; 12% is incinerated and the rest is dumped, landfilled, or openly left in the natural environment. At present, 8 million tons of plastic ends up in the world’s oceans, hence affecting aquatic life and disturbing the whole ecosystem. About 99% of plastic is produced using non-renewable fossil fuel feedstock, which is toxic, dirty, and unhealthy for a healthy environment. Our waste management system is insufficient and the excessive amount of plastic being produced on a daily basis is harming the planet. One solution that can reduce the pressure of proper waste management is biodegradable products.
Waste Management: Biodegradable Solution
Biodegradable products are prepared from renewable resources using polysaccharides, proteins, lipids, natural rubber, and polyesters derived/extracted from plants, animals, or microorganisms. To develop biodegradable products usually, these resources are used alone or in combination with each other to enhance the properties and performance of the end product.
The changing trends of the world are emphasizing alternative ways for establishing the sustainable economy of individuals and society. Hence, the idea of utilizing the renewable feedstock mindfully lift off the burden from rapidly depleting non-renewable resources. Furthermore, the resultant bio-products are inexpensive, non-toxic, and environmentally safer with enhanced degradability. The products that are manufactured using bio-waste (weed, crop leftover. Cuttings, etc.); broadly categorized into bioenergy, biochemical, and biomaterials. Biofuel in bioenergy; soaps, medicines, paints in biochemical and bioplastics, bio foams, and biocomposites in biomaterials are few examples of bio-products.
Applications of Biodegradable Products
The preference for biodegradable products reflects the positive attitude of consumers towards the environment, sustainability, and pollution. Commercially important biodegradable products include packaging, disposable housewares, single carrier shopping bags, automotive, electronic, medical devices, agriculture, biological control products, fragrances, paper, boards, foams, and many others. Bamboo-based towels, toilet paper, floors, and kitchenware; cornstarch-based pens, mugs, cellulosic surface cleaning wipes and coconut-based multipurpose brushes, lignocellulosic derived polyurethanes for spandex are becoming popular around the world and replacing the conventional plastics. Whereas, agricultural waste, apart from being used as fuel, is converted to get chemicals that are employed as reagents for chicken feed and flavor enhancers.
Globally 41% of the produced plastic is being used in packaging and out of which 50% of the share is taken by food packaging alone. The packaging is an important part of all of the available commodities, if we succeed in making transitional towards zero-waste packaging, we can cut down our cost to the environment. Similarly, the replacement of conventional packaging plastics like polyethylene and polystyrene, polyvinyl chloride with poly (butylene adipate-co-terephthalate) (PBAT), could be a durable and viable alternative. Owing to its properties it has the potential to be used as cling wraps, disposable bags, cups, and plates.
Advantages of biodegradable products
As these products are engineered to degrade naturally so they can be easily recycled and composted, which eliminates the need for landfills. The degradation of biodegradable products releases less harmful gases and the solid residue could be used as compost to increase the fertility of the soil. Mostly bacteria degrade the products in natural conditions so no energy input is required as is the case of incinerating plastic products. Furthermore, no harmful toxins and leachate is released into the environment, thus often the quality of soil and water remains intact.
We often see many commodities in the market which come with labels of being biodegradable but they might not degrade if thrown away in the environment. It means that biodegradation only takes place on the provision of the right conditions for instance industrial composting facilities, soil, open-air, and saline water.
Are biodegradable products the ultimate choice to manage waste?
The boom in biodegradable products was perceived as an ultimate solution to manage the waste and associated pollution problems sustainably. However, it is still a long journey ready to be taken to enjoy the real benefits of biodegradable products.
Generally, biodegradable products’ waste made up of biodegradable polymers are treated in one of the following ways; recycling, incineration for energy recovery, and composting. Unlike conventional plastics, poly (lactic) acid (PLA) based products are usually mechanically recycled a few times without significant impacts on properties. Likewise, cellulose-based biodegradable products yield comparable energy to wood and help generate renewable energy. In comparison to conventional plastic waste, biodegradable products can be easily composted. The composting is done aerobically to get carbon and nutrient-rich compost for soil fertility, which is another way of obtaining natural material while managing waste at the same time.
Moreover, the biodegradable products made out of plant extracts or chemically modified seed oil could be applied to the fruits and vegetables, and help prevent food waste. Around 40% of the globally produced food goes to waste, the problem can be curtailed by using naturally derived materials. Edipeel, is an example of one such commercially available product, which is prepared from lipids and glycerolipids naturally present in pulp and seeds of fruits. The product helps prevent oxidation which is the root cause of fruits getting rotten.
Furthermore, farmers produce large quantities of post-harvesting waste and it’s a common practice to burn the agricultural waste which doesn’t only result in increased greenhouse gas emissions but also elevates the level of smog, posing health risks to humans. Currently, many countries are using agricultural waste to produce biofuel which could be an ideal choice for waste-to-energy conversion. Besides that, few other major applications of managing agricultural waste have been researched including the use of agricultural waste for water purification. The current innovations have also led to the production of a product such as Agridust, which is a form of ink to be used for 3D printing. Being made out of agricultural waste, the use of it to prepare compostable plant pots and food packaging is being explored.
Unlike conventional plastics which take hundreds of years to degrade, most of the biodegradable products can degrade on their own without leaving any harmful impacts on the environment. The efforts are underway to improve the properties, durability, and applications of biodegradable products which are vital for their commercialization and to phasing out synthetic plastics in its all forms. The process may not be completely free of challenges, but the introduction of these viable alternatives certainly provides hope to get rid of the ever-growing problem of plastic pollution.
Find out more about waste management and how to solve the current waste issues with zero waste to landfill.
“Our Planet Is Drowning in Plastic Pollution. This World Environment Day, It’s Time for a Change.” Web. 15 Dec. 2020.
Parker, Laura. “Fast Facts about Plastic Pollution.” National Geographic News. 20 Dec. 2018. Web. 15 Dec. 2020.
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