How do we recycle?

How do we recycle? - Amanda Pokki, Jan. 2020.

When it comes to any plant based plastic I am sceptical about what that actually means, this is due to the fact that many times I don’t really understand all the labels that have been put onto products, such as “biodegradable” or “compostable”.

There is a lot of confusion in my mind about what do these words really mean and so usually it really does not impact my decision to purchase a product or not. Perhaps this is due to an excursion I did on a course called waste management and engineering where we visited the Tammervoima waste-to-energy power plant at Tarastenjärvi. I have a memory that we were told that bio-bags that are used for biowaste recycling are always separated out from the bio-waste before they can be processed and the bio-bags don’t decompose fast enough. This was a big shock for me because I did not understand why are people, myself included, using those bio-bags if they are going to be separated out from the waste anyway? After that I haven’t trusted a lot of those kind of bio-plastic or biodegradable items in fear that they are products of greenwashing. Instead of using a bio-bag made of plastic, I now use a paper bag, usually ones I fold my own from old newspapers.

After the excursion I did some research and found out that in some areas the use of those bio-bags is banned, because the bio waste is taken to a bio-ethanol processing plant and the bio-bags will stretch and clog the machinery. (Kokko 2012) So not only are bio-bags separated out when bio-waste is used to make bio-ethanol but also because they don’t decompose fast enough.

Another reason why I am skeptical about plant-based plastics is because I have encountered many that say they are “compostable” or “biodegradable” or something along those lines but the number on the product says 07, meaning it belongs in the mixed waste bin. This seems very contradictory.

In light of these confusing words that I described I decided to do some research for this report and try to understand what each of those terms mean.

“Compostable” always means “biodegradable”, which means they break down in about 90 days in a composting environment leaving behind nutrient rich hummus. Biodegradable items however might not always be compostable, or rather compostable at a backyard compost setting. Biodegradable plastics usually require a specific environment to facilitate their decomposition, typically in large industrial composting facilities that expose the material to high temperatures for less than two weeks. PLA, a type of bioplastic, will only breakdown into water and carbon dioxide in a very specific industrial composting site, not at a backyard compost. (Chait 2019) I’m afraid that labels like “biodegradable” may give a false impression to people that if they were to throw it on the ground it will decompose in nature and could potentially increase littering. I really hope that is not the case, but it is possible.

I used to use the Bioska bags for my biowaste until that Tammervoima excursion. Bioska bags, made by Plastiroll, states that all their “Bioska” products have been certified by the EU standard EN 13432. (Plastiroll n.d.) According to Pirkanmaan jätehuoto’s website, any item with this certification can be put into bio-waste. (Pirkanmaan jätehuolto n.d.) This is confusing because why would the bio-bags be sorted out from the waste at Pirkanmaan jätehuolto facilities in Tarastenjärvi, and yet other items, like for example a biodegradable spoon with the certification, can be put into the bio-waste bin according to the website? I have no clear answer to this question, and I will have to do further research on the topic to figure out the answer.
It might not always be clear what products have this certification and in those cases they might accidentally end up into the bio-waste bins where they will do more harm than good. When I encounter any product that says it is some kind of biodegradable or compostable bio-plastic I tend to steer clear from them. If I have the option of choosing between a bio-plastic product that doesn’t clearly state how I should recycle it and a regular plastic product with a recycling label on it, I will choose the latter, because I at least know what to do with that product. I usually aim to not buy products in plastic at all anyway, but if I have to buy something in packaging, I’ll buy the product I know I can recycle easily.

I do understand why many people prefer using biodegradable bio-bags rather than paper bags and that is because they are much more durable against moisture and are therefore the more secure option for bio-waste recycling. However, with just a little bit more care using a paper bag will do the exact same job without the added step at the waste management facility to remove the bio-bags from the bio-waste.
In conclusion due to the research I did for this report I can now explain the differences between biodegradable and compostable plastic products, as well as learning of the EU standard EN 13432 which was new to me. I think that the world of plant-based plastics is a very interesting topic, and even more so bio-based plastics and I’m very interested in learning more about it.

Pirkanmaan Jätehuolto. N.d. Read on 22.1.2020.
Plastiroll. N.d. Bioska biojätepussit ja -säkit. Read on 21.1.2020.
Kokko, T. 2012. Biojäte pussiin - vaan millaiseen? Released on 16.10.2012. Read on 21.1.2020.
Chait, J. 2019. What "Biodegradable" Really Means. Released on 6.11.2019. Read on 20.1.2020.