As our society gradually becomes more aware of the environmental impacts of our lifestyle choices, 'going green' is no longer just a fashionable statement, but rather a responsible way of life. One such greener practice that people have embraced is composting – a simple yet powerful way to minimize waste and replenish the soil. However, when it comes to composting, not all wastes are created equal. One particular offender that doesn't belong in your home compost bin is petroleum-based plastic.
In this article, we'll delve into why petroleum-based plastics aren't compostable, the risks they pose to the environment, their impact on the composting process, and the kind of plastics that are safer alternatives.
Considering the ubiquity of plastics in our lives, it's crucial to understand what they are and how they are produced. Petroleum-based plastics, as their name suggests, are derived from petroleum, a fossil fuel that's exhaustible, non-renewable, and importantly, environmentally damaging.
While petroleum-based plastics have revolutionized various sectors like packaging, healthcare, and transportation due to their durability, lightweight, and versatility, they come with significant environmental costs. They are non-biodegradable, meaning they cannot be broken down naturally by biological agents such as bacteria or fungi.
The composting process is a complex symphony orchestrated by nature, involving a consortium of microorganisms that break down organic matter into nutrient-rich soil. This natural recycling process, however, is not designed to handle petroleum-based plastics.
Plastics are polymers, long chains of molecules, that require specific conditions and bacteria to break down. Petroleum-based plastics are synthesized in a way that makes them resistant to biodegradation. This resistance is what makes them so durable and useful, but it's also what denies them a place in the compost bin.
In a home composting bin, temperatures typically don't reach levels high enough to facilitate the breakdown of these plastics. The bacteria and fungi present in your compost, innocuous to you and great at breaking down organic matter, simply aren't equipped to decompose petroleum-based plastics.
Since petroleum-based plastics do not biodegrade, they persist in the compost as microplastics. These microplastics can inhibit the composting process by creating a physical barrier that hinders the transfer of oxygen and moisture, essential elements for aerobic composting.
More worryingly, they can eventually find their way into our garden soil and even the food produced from that soil. Microplastics ingested by earthworms and other soil fauna can impair their health, inhibit soil fertility, and disrupt the ecological balance.
The negative impacts of petroleum-based plastics extend well beyond your compost bin. Being non-biodegradable, these plastics can take up to a thousand years to decompose, all the while breaking down into tiny microplastics that contaminate soil and water. They pose a major threat to wildlife, with countless marine and terrestrial animals suffering after ingesting these plastics, mistaking them for food.
When incinerated, petroleum-based plastics also release a cocktail of harmful gases, including carbon dioxide, a major contributor to global warming. Their manufacture is approximately 4-8% of the world's oil production, further depleting this non-renewable resource and contributing to climate change.
While petroleum-based plastics are non-compostable, not all plastics share this characteristic. Bioplastics, made from renewable sources like corn starch, can be composted under the right conditions. These products, often labelled as 'compostable' or 'biodegradable', can break down within 90-180 days in commercial composting facilities that maintain higher temperatures.
However, for home composting, it's still crucial to ensure that the bioplastics you're using are backyard compostable. Some require special conditions only achievable in industrial composting facilities. Always check the products' certification and opt for those that meet home composting standards.
Additionally, reducing the use of plastics and shifting towards reusable alternatives can add another dimension to our green efforts.
While composting is one of the eco-friendliest practices that we can adopt, including petroleum-based plastics in the process is counterproductive and harmful. These plastics are not designed to biodegrade and hence do not belong in our compost bins, causing harmful effects on the composting process and the environment.
Choosing compostable materials wisely, understanding the differences between various types of plastics, and reducing our overall plastic dependency can make our sustainable efforts more fruitful. Let's continue composting - but let's do it right!