With the worldwide problem of plastic pollution increasingly on the restaurant and hospitality industry’s radar, many businesses are making changes to help reduce plastic waste in their communities. For example, some foodservice operators are switching to biodegradable plastic to meet continued demand for single-use and takeaway products from customers who are accustomed to convenience. But what many might not realize is that if certain disposal methods are not being used, biodegradable plastics will not actually help the environment.
Is Switching to Biodegradable Plastic Worth the Investment?
This is just one of many questions that foodservice and hospitality businesses are grappling with when it comes to reducing waste. To help the industry get a better understanding of how to overcome these challenges, you can fill out this survey from Terus by Oct. 31 — plus, you’ll have the chance to win $100.
If investing in more environmentally-friendly alternatives to plastic has crossed your mind, below are some pointers to help you assess whether switching to biodegradable plastic will be worth the time, effort and cost for your business.
Understanding Biodegradable vs. Conventional Plastics
Let’s start with some basics.
Here is a list of definitions for different types of plastic material:
- Conventional Plastic or Simple Plastic = Made from petrochemicals (a.k.a. fossil fuels).
- Recycled Plastic = Made from recycled plastics rather than raw petrochemicals. Recycled plastic produces products of lower-grade plastic (e.g., plastic bottles recycled to create plastic benches or fence posts).
- Biodegradable = Plastics that can be broken down by microorganisms (bacteria or fungi) into water, carbon dioxide (CO2) and some bio-material (i.e., compost).
- Bioplastics = A type of biodegradable plastic derived from biological or natural substances, such as corn starch or vegetable fats/oils, rather than from petroleum. Bioplastics generally produce a relatively lower net increase in carbon dioxide gas when they break down.
- Compostable = Many people confuse biodegradable with compostable. While they are similar, compostable products are biodegradable with an additional benefit: biodegradable simply means the object can be biologically broken down, while compostable materials go one step further by providing the earth with nutrients once the material has completely broken down in the form of compost or humus.
Reasons for Switching to Biodegradable Plastic
According to a recent report from the United Nations Environment Programme, each year the world produces more than 400 million tonnes of plastic materials. Many of those materials can take up to a thousand years or more to decompose and only 9 per cent of all plastic waste ever produced has been recycled.
This is where biodegradable plastics can come in as a better alternative to conventional single-use plastics because:
- They are equally resistant, durable and versatile.
- Under specific conditions, they can be 100% degradable.
- They do not change the flavour or scent of the food contained.
- They contribute less to climate change.
- Their production reduces non-biodegradable waste that contaminates the environment.
Setting Up for a Successful Switch
The tricky thing about switching to biodegradable plastic materials is that there is no universal method to properly dispose of them — practices differ from municipality to municipality, and waste hauler to waste hauler.
You need to know how your municipality and waste hauler handle disposal of these materials before you make the switch, or all the time, effort and money you spend will end up having zero positive effect on the environment.
If the materials are just going to end up in a landfill, then switching to biodegradable plastic is pointless — it can take many decades for these materials to completely break down and become compost in a landfill.
Biodegradable materials need sunlight and oxygen to decompose, and they are often not exposed to these elements in a landfill, so this makes the decomposition process happen much more slowly.
Many bioplastics or biodegradable plastics also require high heat to break down (around 50 degrees Celsius), and the materials might not reach the temperatures they need to degrade in a landfill.
Not All Municipalities Support Switching to Biodegradable Plastic
Take Toronto for example: Many biodegradable plastics, such as polylactide acid (PLA), are not accepted in the City of Toronto’s Green Bin organics program. This is because the municipality uses a hydropulper to separate all types of plastic and any other materials that can’t be processed using their system.
To make matters worse, a biodegradable plastic like PLA isn’t even accepted in the city’s recycling stream as it degrades the quality of products when mixed with conventional plastics.
Bioplastics and biodegradable plastics are a great option IF they can and will be disposed of properly.
If you’re spending more money serving your food and drinks using biodegradable products with the intention to do good for the environment, you should be getting what you pay for. So make sure you ask first. Become aware. Check with your local waste management system and/or your private waste hauler to find out if they will accept biodegradable plastic materials, or if they will simply be separated as residue to be sent to a landfill.
Biodegradable plastics are innovative and useful materials, but should only be used when they can be properly managed post-disposal, with minimal environmental impact. Otherwise, you’re just throwing money onto the trash heap.
Terus has joined the Restaurants Canada community to help businesses learn about ways to reduce waste and save money. If you are interested in learning more about sustainable business practices that are worth the investment, fill out this survey by October 31st for a chance to win $100 — and more importantly, to help the industry get a better understanding of how to become more sustainable.
Take the survey here: