“Biodegradable” plastic doesn't do what you think it does. Your paper or metal straw takes only a tiny sip at the problem of plastic pollution. And your supposedly eco-conscious cloth grocery bag is more damaging to the environment than conventional plastic bags—unless you reuse it literally thousands of times. In other words, many of our ideas about plastic and the environment are confused. And that may be getting in the way of the fight against global warming.
Take the ruckus over single-use plastic bags and straws, which the conservative British magazine The Spectator predictably but correctly pegged as a “moral panic.” The hullabaloo has spurred restaurateurs to roll out cups and utensils made from biodegradable materials such as polylactic acid (PLA), a polyester derived from starchy plants, including corn and sugarcane. The popular myth is that you can safely toss such items onto the forest floor or into the ocean, and microbes will break them down into raw materials that will magically be reborn as daisies or seahorses.
Not so much. In America and Europe, the technical standards for biodegradability are mostly about industrial composting. Put a plastic bag or bottle into a composting vessel, throw in some microorganisms and turn up the temperature to between 50 and 60 degrees Celsius (122 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit). If 90 percent of the material is released as carbon dioxide within 180 days, then you get to call the item “biodegradable” or “compostable.”
In other words, a biodegradable material is one deliberately designed to dump its carbon into the atmosphere at the end of its life cycle. Even worse, if biodegradable plastic ends up in an oxygen-deprived landfill rather than a composting facility, anaerobic decomposition will turn it into methane, a gas that warms the planet from 34 to 86 times as much as carbon dioxide. And if you dump biodegradables into the ocean, they break up into tiny bits that choke marine animals long before they degrade appreciably.
Globally, we produce an eye-popping amount of plastic—some 380 million tons a year, virtually all of it from fossil-fuel feedstocks. So it's understandable why consumers would cling to the comforting 1980s-era idea that plastic can be engineered to disappear back into the environment. But the reality is that 60 percent of all the plastic ever produced is accumulating in landfills or as litter.
And from a climate scientist's point of view, that may actually be a good thing. Of course, it's a crime that so much plastic waste gets into terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. But we won't outgrow our need for plastic anytime soon: for one thing, it substitutes for heavier materials in cars and planes, which saves fuel. On top of that—and this is my main point—plastic can function as an artificial carbon sink. If we're going to extract carbon from the ground at all, far better that it ends up in a soda bottle that will last 400 years than in the combustion chamber of your car.
If we want to save Earth, we should stop obsessing over biodegradability and invest instead in plastics that are bio-based. Plants use photosynthesis to convert water and CO2 from the atmosphere into sugars, starch and cellulose, all of which can be processed to make plastics. PLA is one of those, but it's designed to be composted, which makes it carbon-neutral at best. The most exciting work in this area focuses on nonbiodegradable plastics such as polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which Coca-Cola uses in its PlantBottle. The current version, introduced in 2009, uses PET that is 30 percent plant-based. Both Coca-Cola and Pepsi have announced bottles made from 100 percent plant-derived PET, although neither has a market-ready version yet.
The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change points out that to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees C above preindustrial levels, we may need to remove tens to hundreds of gigatons of CO2 from the atmosphere, ideally by 2050. If the world fully converted to nonbiodegradable bioplastics starting in 2020, the carbon sequestered over the next 30 years could amount to more than 10 gigatons—which would be a good start. When it comes to plastic, it's time to think more flexibly.