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Paper or plastic?

Not only has the paper vs. plastic argument been flipped upside down since when I was a kid (wasn’t I saving trees by asking for plastic?), new alternatives are available these days, too. Well, sort of…

In recent years I’ve seen several examples of novel packaging in the marketplace, ranging from degradable plastic bags to starch-based packing peanuts to Amazon’s “frustration-free” packaging.

These are all steps in the right direction, but there are some important points to make about these different types of packaging.

First, degradable is not the same as biodegradable, or compostable. I was delighted when I received my first degradable plastic bag at the corner shop last year in England. It breaks down in 18 months — great!

Degradable plastics are manufactured with special additives that allow them to break down in a predictable way. This can be either from contact with air or moisture, or from exposure to sunlight, depending on the additive. But I naively assumed when I got my degradable plastic bag that it was made from a natural product. It turns out it is still made from petroleum.

Bioplastics made from natural sources do exist. You may have already seen forks and plastic cups made from these materials. These are further classified as biodegradable or compostable, depending on the conditions and time required for them to break down naturally.

Two specific examples of bioplastics from my day-to-day life come to mind. Recently the city of San Francisco enacted legislation requiring supermarkets to use compostable plastic carrier bags or no plastic bags at all. And my personal favorite (except at 3AM) are the chlorine-free, natural, and biodegradable ingredients in my son Jack’s nappies.

Don’t expect bioplastics to be the norm overnight, but do keep an eye on what packaging claims really mean when you see them. Maybe the next time you opt for plastic you won’t have to feel so bad.

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