Holy Grail of Packaging – Biodegradable/Organic Packaging
Or is it?
Volumes have been spoken about the menace of plastic packaging and how it is harming both us and the environment. Plastic waste is recognized as one of the most troublesome categories of waste, and disposal of plastic waste has been blamed for shortening the life of landfill sites. These stay in the environment for hundreds of years without degrading. Worse, they start leaching microplastics (small plastic particles degraded from larger plastic products). These enter our soil and water and get absorbed into the food we eat/ ingested by the marine life and subsequently enter into the food chain. Keeping all this in mind, there is a massive movement going on all over the world to phase out single-use disposable plastics and move towards much more sustainable alternatives.
In response to the plastic problem, biodegradable plastics were designed which are meant to be easily degraded by micro-organisms and to be absorbed by the environment or by waste landfills. These biodegradable plastics are categorized into three groups:
- Bacterial Polymers
- Plant-derived Polymers
- Chemically synthesized polymers
Keeping it simple, any of the above-mentioned materials are just bio-degradable in theory. They require specific conditions to decompose. On reaching the landfill, these conditions are not met and hence they end up causing the same problems as regular plastics. In addition, they also break down into microplastics.
Opinion: These are not decomposed in a landfill. Only when we have a solid segregation and processing facility (which is expensive), can these be used the way they are designed to be.
These kinds of disposable plates/packaging are generally made out of areca nut or other naturally available plant-based materials. Often it is considered as the Holy Grail of Packaging as people believe that since they are made up of organic matter, they will decompose naturally without causing any harm to nature i.e. they are easily compostable.
For the uninitiated, composting means decomposition of organic matter in aerobic conditions a.k.a Air is a must for the process to happen.
The way landfills are designed or used all over the world, there is very less scope of air to get in. Once the organic material is landfilled, they start decomposing in the absence of air and end up generating CO2 and CH4 (Carbon Dioxide and Methane). These 2 gases are the primary components of Green House Gases and directly contribute to Climate Change.
The graph shown above might seem very complicated but it says one simple story – all organic waste contribute to Climate Change if they are landfilled and not processed earlier ( Yes, even paper!!)
OPINION: Organic Packaging are also a very big problem if they just end up in the landfill.
What do we do then, when it comes to Sikkim,?
One must remember that all the waste generated in Gangtok is mixed and dumped into the landfill. There is very less resource recovery. In this scenario, we can use organic packaging only when the following conditions are met:
- Everyone actively segregates their waste at source.
- The waste collection happens in a way such that all organic/wet waste is processed separately from dry waste and rejects.
In the case that the above two conditions are not met, all the alternatives mentioned in the post will just end up contributing even further to the already massive problem of climate change. Do we want this for ourselves? We must either be mindful of our choice of packaging or get our act together and collectively segregate and make sure it gets processed appropriately. The Choice is Yours!
- Degradation of Biodegradable/Degradable Plastics in Municipal Solid-Waste Landfill, Department of Applied and Landscape Ecology, Faculty of Agronomy, Mendel University in Brno, Zemědělská 1, 61300 Brno, Czech Republic, 2014
- Evaluation of landfill gas emissions from municipal solid waste landfills for the life-cycle analysis of waste-to-energy pathways