Plastic packaging alternatives may be worse for the marine environment

Plastic packaging alternatives may be worse for the marine environment

A committee of United Kingdom members of parliament (MPs) has warned that plastic packaging alternatives could be doing more harm to the marine environment than plastics. Compostable and biodegradable plastics could be adding to global marine pollution because they do not always break down as intended.

The use of these plastic alternatives is growing rapidly around the world, but there is a worldwide shortage of infrastructure to correctly process these waste items. Experts also argue that the lack of consumer understanding about compostable and biodegradable plastics actually increases the likelihood of littering and illegal dumping.

Most compostable packaging waste needs to be sent to an industrial composting facility in order to properly decompose. Being left out in the environment will not work. The same goes for biodegradable plastics – they need to be sent to a certified facility in order to break down as intended. The MPs state that there are not enough of these facilities around the world.

Environmental NGOs weigh-in

These concerns held by British lawmakers are also shared by environmental non-government organisations (NGOs) in many regions across the globe. They agree that the rapid introduction of so-called biodegradable plastic alternatives may have actually increased marine pollution. “If a biodegradable cup gets into the sea, it could pose just as much of a problem to marine life as a conventional plastic cup,” says Environmental Investigation Agency ocean campaigner Juliet Phillips.

Environmental think tank, Green Alliance, also says that there is evidence to prove that the term ‘biodegradable’ makes consumers think that it’s alright to discard these materials into the environment. This inadvertently encourages pollution on land and at sea. These materials also do not decompose the same way in the environment as they did under controlled circumstances in a laboratory during development.

Governments concerned about plastic alternatives

“In the backlash against plastic, other materials are being increasingly used as substitutes in food and drink packaging. We are concerned that such actions are being taken without proper consideration of wider environmental consequences, such as higher carbon emissions. Compostable plastics have been introduced without the right infrastructure or consumer understanding to manage compostable waste,” says United Kingdom chair of the Commons select committee Neil Parish.

“The drive to introduce bioplastics, biodegradable plastics and compostable plastics is being done with limited emphasis on explaining the purpose of these materials to the public or consideration of whether they are in fact better from an environmental perspective than the plastic packaging they replace,” explains UK-based independent environmental charity, Keep Britain Tidy.

South Africa in the same boat

Although these opinions are being voiced by UK-based experts, they hold true for biodegradable and plastic alternatives around the world. South Africa is also seeing a rapid increase in the use of compostable and biodegradable plastics. Many supermarkets, coffee shops and restaurants are already providing South Africans with biodegradable and compostable alternatives.

These materials are also not always suitable for recycling. South Africa has a thriving recycling industry and many of the plastic materials produced in the country end up being recycled into new products over and over again. In a country like ours, it sometimes makes more sense to recycle traditional plastic packaging and products than to push for so-called biodegradable and compost alternatives.


Plastics SA represents all sectors of the South African plastics industry. ​Together with our associations, we play an active role in the growth and development of the industry and strive to address plastics related issues, influence role-players and make plastics the material of choice.

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