Biodegradable bags: explained

According to the Georgian Law plastic bags are banned on the territory of Georgia. The law allows the use only of biodegradable (and compostable) bags. What is a biodegradable bag? Can biodegradable bags be composted? Is a biodegradable bag really better than the plastic one? In this article, written in collaboration with Eugene Bunin, we will try to answer these questions.

What does “Biodegradable” mean?

Here is one of numerous definitions in the internet: biodegradable plastic is plastic that is designed to break up when exposed to the presence of microorganisms, it is usually made from natural byproducts, and follows rigorously controlled conditions of temperature and humidity in industrial environments. 

We should distinguish two groups of biodegradable plastics:

  • plastic made exclusively from biodegradable polymers
  • plastic materials that represent a blend of conventional, non-degradable, petroleum-based materials with biodegradable ones.

The first type is usually made from  soy or starch-based biopolymers not containing any synthetic material. You can find such bags nowadays in Carrefour in the veggie section, in Nikora sometimes, in other supermarkets. They are softer to touch and most of them are marked with  “TUV Austria”  or “Compostable” labels. 

Such bags can be composted. Although for the proper results they require industrial composting facilities with controlled levels of humidity and air exposure. There are no such facilities at the moment in Georgia. 

If put in a composting pit in a backyard it can take significantly longer time to decompose. When these bags end up in a landfill they rot just like other organic waste releasing methane – potent greenhouse gas. They also contribute to the wind littering problem of all landfills when the bags are blown around from not yet covered surfaces.

The other downside of starch-based bags is that it brings additional burden on the agricultural system. Corn or soy, or potatoes are grown to make single-use bags out of them. It is a wrong situation that harms us and nature, depleting the soil that could be used for better purposes.

The second type of biodegradable bags, a blend of plastic with special additives, is also called “oxo-degradable”. Oxo-degradable bags break when exposed to sunlight and air faster than a conventional plastic bag. However, the studies show that in the water they behave like other fully plastic bags. 

Oxo-degradable bags are more harmful than useful as they are not as durable as polyethylene bags, rapidly degrade into much more harmful and mobile microplastics scattering in the environment, entering the nutrition cycle and finally ending up on our plates.

These bags are also not recyclable. Mixed with conventional plastic bags for recycling they can spoil the whole batch for recyclers. 

There is a lot of greenwashing related to such bags. Companies market them as an “eco-friendly” alternative to plastic when, in fact, it is not at all less harmful.

How to identify oxo-degradable plastic? 

There are no clear regulations on how such bags should be marked. Sometimes they are marked as biodegradable but in the content LDPE (Low-Density polyethylene) + biodegrading additive (usually, d2w) is mentioned. 

We also saw some trash bags where this additive was advertised. 

Ironically, compared to these “biodegradable” bags usual plastic bags look even better because they can be reused longer, if you already have them, or recycled properly, if labeled with the type of plastic.

Is there a solution?

Any single-use packaging is eco-unfriendly. It uses resources to be produced for an average use of 15 minutes long, harming the environment in its long afterlife. 

How to make the lowest impact related to shopping bags? Say “parki ar minda” at the cash desk and use reusable bags every time you go shopping. It can be any tote bag that you already have, made of fabric. Avoid buying new bags but use what you already have. If you still need to buy a new one, choose the sturdiest and the most comfortable option that will serve you many years. 

Advocate eco-friendly solutions, explaining your friends and relatives of the harm of single-use things. Spreading the word is as important as not using plastic bags 😉

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