Commentary

Is Plastic Biodegradable? Here’s the truth.

Allies and Partners
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Editor’s note: This is one in a continuing series of educational columns about fostering environmental stewardship and leadership coordinated by ACES — The Alliance of Climate and Environmental Stewards

Even though my children no longer play with toys, I’ve held onto a set of plastic stacking cups I played with as a child. Understandably, my teenage children have no interest in inheriting them. But an even bigger issue concerns me. Whether I save it for my family, donate it, or put it in the bin, my precious plastic toy will never go away – and that’s not a good thing.

Regardless of how we dispose of it, plastic will not biodegrade. Most plastics can and will break down into smaller pieces. Even without human intervention, wind currents, sunlight, and other natural processes will slowly wear plastic down over hundreds or thousands of years. As plastic breaks down, it releases toxic chemicals and carcinogens into the environment. 

My stacking cups will eventually break into tiny plastic particles called microplastics. Trillions of these tiny polluting particles – weighing over 2 million tons – float on the surface of the world’s oceans. And these microplastics can actually break down even further. Due to their size, nano plastics can easily infiltrate our bodies through our skin, food, and even the air we breathe.  

This problem isn’t going away. In the U.S. alone, we produce about 40 million metric tons of plastic annually. And 85% of this plastic will end up as waste in a landfill.  The average person in the U.S. goes through about 156 plastic bottles and 365 disposable bags every year.  Single-use plastic packaging makes up about 40% of all plastic produced. This includes bottles, bags, and containers that, at best, will get used for a few hours before becoming trash.  Simply tossing plastic into the landfill doesn’t solve the problem. Eventually, all landfills leak and leach toxic chemicals into our soil, air, and waterways. Because plastic is not biodegradable, it exacerbates this problem. 

Incineration is no better. When burned, plastic spews pollutants into the air – causing irreparable harm to the health of our communities. And the remaining ash from incineration ends up in a landfill anyway.  

Big Beverage companies like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Nestlé have driven the global plastic pollution crisis for decades, thanks to the single-use bottles they sell their drinks in. Among its strategies to avoid responsibility, Big Beverage has invested millions of dollars to champion inadequate solutions like curbside recycling programs. Despite people’s best efforts, barely 6 % of plastic waste gets recycled annually.  

We have solutions like bottle return programs that help us recycle plastic and other materials effectively and tackle this problem at the root. While recycling can keep some litter out of landfills and incinerators, not everything can be recycled. Plus, the process of recycling bottles and other containers also creates microplastics. These particles expose workers to toxic chemicals and infiltrate our environment through wastewater used to sanitize plastics.  We still have time to switch to more sustainable options, such as refillable containers and reusable packaging. From banning plastic bags in retail to passing bottle deposit bills, these solutions can help us move toward a cleaner future. Let’s reserve plastic for essential purposes – like medical equipment – and work to ditch single-use plastics for good.  It’s time to take action to create the legacy our children and grandchildren deserve to inherit: a clean ocean, communities free from toxic pollution, and a healthy environment where they can achieve their full potential. 

Mara Shulman is a Senior Attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation’s Zero Waste Project. In this role, she works to advance CLF’s Zero Waste advocacy, litigation, and legislative work in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island.

Please join ACES and other environmental groups in sending this message to your legislators soon. Let us know your thoughts on gaining more participation in this important campaign at acesnewburyport@gmail.com and stay up to date by subscribing to our monthly newsletter at https://www.aces-alliance.org/ . Maybe even take a train to Boston to meet with legislators at the State House on Jan 22nd.

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Mara Shulman

Mara Shulman is a Senior Attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation’s Zero Waste Project.
In this role, she works to advance CLF’s Zero Waste advocacy, litigation, and legislative work in
Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island.

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