Are Biodegradable Products Good for the Environment, or Greenwashing?

Biodegradable products have positioned themselves as the eco-friendly packaging option that can be used, thrown out, and broken down in a landfill.

That may sound nice, but in reality, many so-called biodegradable products have a dubious record when it comes to helping the planet. 

The term “biodegradable” has been greenwashed into meaning “eco-friendly.” But to qualify as a biodegradable product, by definition, the product only needs to be able to break down in nature. The catch is that there is no time limit. Almost anything will biodegrade at some point — that point may just be thousands of years away. 

Standard plastics and aluminum products can take hundreds of years to biodegrade. Glass can take millions of years. These products can technically claim to be biodegradable without mentioning that it could be centuries before the product actually breaks down. 

Most biodegradable plastics claim to be able to fully break down within months — which is far faster than conventional plastic. But once again, there’s a catch. That breakdown time is measured under ideal conditions in which the moisture content, light, oxygen, and other factors are controlled. Those factors aren’t replicated in a common landfill. 

A study conducted by the University of Plymouth found that a “biodegradable” grocery bag was still strong enough to carry several books after more than three years buried in the ground or drifting in the sea. The researchers tested the bags in three different natural environments, including at sea, exposed to sunlight, and buried in the soil, and the bag survived all three conditions. 

These kinda-sorta “biodegradable” bags are not an anomaly. A study from researchers at the University of Sao Paulo found that false claims of biodegradability are becoming more frequent

Biodegradable plastics — which are sometimes referred to as bioplastics — break down more rapidly than standard plastics, but the decomposed product is often a sludge of microplastics. The various chemicals used to construct the biodegradable product can leach into the soil and harm plants and animals.

Additionally, the plant-based biodegradable products require, well, plants. It takes a lot of land, water, and carbon-based fuels to grow and harvest the plants needed to make the biodegradable products, further compounding the environmental impact.  

Biodegradable products are truly single-use. Unlike standard plastic, glass, and aluminum, biodegradable products cannot be recycled (and will contaminate a recycling stream). Plastic bottles, for example, can be recycled into new plastic bottles several times if properly recycled, but biodegradable products have one destination: the landfill.  

Despite all of these concerns, the demand for biodegradable products is skyrocketing. A recent report from the BBC revealed that China’s production of biodegradable products has grown sevenfold. This is especially concerning because China and its neighboring countries have a terrible track record of managing any kind of plastic waste. According to one study, almost all mismanaged plastic found in the ocean can be traced back to 10 rivers in Africa and Asia. Dr. Molly Zhongnan Jia, a researcher for Greenpeace, warned that biodegradable products from China could be a significant problem. 

“In the absence of controlled composting facilities, most biodegradable plastics end up in landfills, or worse, in rivers and the ocean,” she said. 

When it comes to the ocean, the harm from plastic and bioplastic is almost the same. A 2020 study from Tel Aviv University found that bioplastic had a similar negative effect on marine animals as standard plastic. Additionally, the study found that the biodegradable plastic did not degrade rapidly, as advertised. 

Biodegradable products sound nice, but almost any product can claim the title without having the green credentials to back it up. Choosing a product that can be recycled is likely the more environmentally friendly option.

This is the sixth report in a series about companies “greenwashing” products to make them appear to be better for the environment than they actually are. You can read our other greenwashing reports here. Keep an eye on the Periodic Fabels blog for future updates to the series.