I’ve been in a debate with myself for some time now. This debate was heightened when I ordered take-out and I received my food packaged in Styrofoam and contained in a biodegradable plastic bag. I chuckled to myself and thought “how misguided”. I’m often told that I’m too cynical, too critical, but as an environmental specialist and an environmentalist, I find myself thinking that doing something is not always better than nothing.
I’m guilty of doing things that have been environmentally misguided and I know and firmly believe that behaviour and consumption habits have to be changed in small increments and won’t occur overnight, but in a race to be as “green” as possible, so much of what I’m seeing amounts to either a negative or negligible environmental impact masquerading under the banner of “green”/environmentally conscious behaviour. Going back to the example of my dinner that was packaged in Styrofoam and handed to me in a “biodegradable” plastic bag. Let’s break it down. The impact cause by any Styrofoam ending up in landfills outweighs the impact of a plastic bag, biodegradable or not …i’ll get to that.
Styrofoam, Polystyrene, or Expanded Plastic Foam (EPS), according to the Sierra Club contains numerous toxic ingredients including benezene which is a carcinogen that is extracted from coal (we will not touch upon the environmental damage that coal extraction can cause today). According to the Sierra Club:
Styrofoam takes hundreds of years to decompose naturally. There are few known methods of breaking it down quickly. Because EPS is an end product, it cannot be recycled into different products, only reincarnated as itself. This limits recycling options since the process of melting EPS into a liquid state and then reforming it is too labor-intensive and toxic for recycling centers to handle. Most recycling centers do not accept EPS because they do not have the technology available to reprocess it, so people just throw it away with their trash.
Biodegradable bags may not be as environmentally friendly as you may think. Biodegradable bags, or in most cases ‘oxo-degradable’ bags, according to the Guardian Newspaper, often don’t break down in landfills because they require oxygen and light in order to decompose. According to an article on the Guardian Newspaper last year, some biodegradable bags contain high levels of lead and cobalt. If biodegradable bags that contain lead decompose, there is a risk that the lead could leach into the soil and cause environmental harm. If the bags are not in the right conditions can take as long to degrade as regular density plastic bags. These bags do not necessarily disolve to nothing, but rather turn into small pellets that do not disintegrate or leach harmful chemicals into its environment. Most of what I’ve read suggests that it takes about 100 years for plastic to disintegrate.
I have no doubt in my mind that the proprietor of the establishment that packaged my dinner in Styrofoam in a biodegradable plastic bag probably did so with the best intentions. I think that it’s fantastic that more and more people are thinking about their environmental impact, but these kinds of actions are misguided because of the market that is overly saturated with false and misleading information. Good and balanced information is hard to come by, and it is hard to know what is misleading information and what is not. So, even if you decide that bio/oxo-degradable plastic is better than non-oxo/bio-degradable plastic, I think the restaurateur chose to fight the wrong fight – perhaps my to-go salad could have been packaged in a cardboard-based container and the plastic could have been avoided altogether.