It’s Not Easy Being Green

Feb. 7, 2019

By Alyssa Edmunds

There’s been a big push for green alternatives to products and activities that harm our planet. In fact, the European Union is setting an ambitious goal to have all plastics reusable or recyclable by 2030, despite some difficulties associated with it, according to a recent article in Chemical Processing -- “Europe Eyes Plastic Recycling Efforts.”

Additionally, many companies in the U.S. have attempted to be more eco-friendly in order to appease customers. A common trend in fast food restaurants, for example, is to use “green plastics,” which they tout as a biodegradable alternative to traditional plastics. However, in a lot of cases, this is likely causing more harm to the environment than good.

According to a Reactions video from the American Chemical Society, “green plastic” is made from polylactic acid (PLA), which is made from fermented starches, which are treated to form a polymer and then shaped into plastic. Under specific circumstances, this plastic can be composted. PLA will only biodegrade if its tough crystalline structure is melted down so that bacteria can eat it. In order to do this, a lot of consistent heat is needed that is only available in certain facilities. So, someone using a recycling bin at their home will likely not be able to provide the necessary conditions to make PLA biodegradable.

The biggest problem concerning the use of plastics made from PLA is that if it comes in contact with other plastics, it will contaminate them. A better alternative to purely using PLA is to make plastic from a mix of PLA and polycaprolactone because this will be able to break down in a home compost bin. Even with this option, issues arise because polycaprolactone is made from a non-renewable source: petroleum. For a more in-depth explanation, check out the short video below.

After seeing green plastic alternatives at my campus’s dining halls, I am saddened to learn that by using these alternatives, students may be inadvertently hurting the environment because I am not sure that my school takes the necessary measures to ensure that the green plastic will biodegrade. However, scientific research to find more eco-friendly alternatives to our everyday products gives me hope. Until then, I will opt for reusable dishes to save the environment.

Alyssa Edmunds is Chemical Processing’s social media intern and a student at The Ohio State University. She is studying Actuarial Science. From her dorm room in Columbus she is cheering on scientists in their effort to search for the best alternative to traditional plastics.

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