Most of the plastic packaging and products that we use as “disposables” are made out of oil. And once discarded, they will remain in the environment for tens if not hundreds of years.

So, choosing a plant-based alternative – often called a “bioplastic” is going to be better right? After all, if it is made of plant then it must be biodegradable?

Not always. Plastic covers a whole host of products – and describes the structure of a material, rather than what it is made of. So you can get plastics that are made out of petrochemicals that are biodegradable, and plastics that are made out of plant that are not biodegradable.

You have already checked your product and it DEFINITELY says that it is biodegradable. But what does this actually mean?

Most products labelled “biodegradable” will only biodegrade when subjected to temperatures of above 50°C for long periods of time. And you only really find these conditions in certain types industrial composter: they are not going to be found in the sea.

And what about “compostable” straws? Are they any better?

Biodegradable and compostable are often used interchangeably – they are not quite the same thing – compostable products biodegrade to produce, well, compost. But they still have to have the right conditions for that to happen. And they have to be captured and taken to the right processing facility.

Check your biodegradable / compostable packet of straws or whatever other bioplastic product you have and you may find they conform to the EN 13432 composting standard. (Stay with us). If the manufacturer has gone all out then it might be supplying something that conforms to the “OK Compost” standard – set by a Belgian firm called Vinçotte.  Vinçotte will take your product and test it rigorously to see whether it breaks down to form compost according to the standards specified by EN 13432 (specifically that over 90% of the product must have broken down under “biological action” within six months). But again – and here is the snag – this only has to happen in conditions that you find in industrial composting units. They also have an “OK Compost – Home” standard. This is for the packaging that you CAN put in your home composter to make compost. Large organisations like the National Trust have switched to this packaging to wrap their magazine in. But the Marine Conservation Society just send out their magazine in the post with no packaging at all.

Is it better to buy biodegradable? Possibly yes, but it is not going to solve the problem of marine plastic pollution. It can have some other unintended side effects such as increase littering (people chuck stuff on the ground because they think it is going to disappear). And it stops us thinking about the bigger changes we need to make to tackle our over-consumption.

So, what should you do? Well, before you ditch one product and replace it with another look at ways you can avoid or reduce your consumption of single use plastics altogether. And that is the subject of a whole new article.