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Is it a good thing if a plastic “degrades?”

Posted by Luke on March 2, 2010

The short answer:  No.

The little bit longer answer:   There’s a big difference between “degrade” and “biodegrade.”  “Degradation” is the process of fragmenting into smaller pieces.  Because something fragments into smaller pieces doesn’t mean it’s a good thing.  “Bio-degradation,” on the other hand, is the process of naturally breaking down completely into CO2.  This is a very good thing if a biodegradable product is disposed of in a conducive environment (i.e. a composting facility).  A “degradable” product will merely break apart into tiny pieces causing litter, contamination, and preventing recovery through recycling or composting.

There’s a lot of confusion among consumers and producers about the concept of degradable additives (chemicals such as oxo degradables) that are added to PET (bottles) and PE (plastic bags).  Some producers of those products have mislead consumers to believe that they will magically disappear when disposed of.  Simply put, oxo degradable additives do not cause products to degrade in landfills or anywhere else, based on the research I’ve seen.  Furthermore, degradable additives reduce the overall quality of recycled material, due to contamination issues, which is very damaging to the economics required by recyclers.  Sorting technology currently can’t indicate when a product contains such an additive.

So when you see a company claiming their bags or products are just “degradable,” they really aren’t being green.

If you’d like more information, here’s a presentation from a recent webinar held by the Association of Postconsumer Plastics Recyclers that discusses this topic.


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