By Orna Herr, Communications Officer (Education) at the British Science Association 


We’re becoming increasingly aware of how bad plastic is for the environment. Stories of microplastics filling the bellies of marine life, turtles choking on plastic bags, plastic packaging littering the countryside, causing an eyesore and affecting plant growth, are rife.

We’re surrounded by plastic and use it every day for all sorts of things; food packaging, cigarette butts, bottles, not to mention all the household items made of plastic. So, any chance to use plastic that seems not so harmful for the environment feels wonderfully guilt-relieving. This food packaging is labelled as biodegradable? Surely that will be back in Mother Nature’s soil before you know it, no problem.

But labelling on single-use plastic that gives the impression that it is not as bad for the environment as normal plastic (known as greenwashing) is, as you might have now suspected, too good to be true.

Dannielle Green, an ecologist at Anglia Ruskin University who researches the impacts of microplastics, explained why at ‘What’s the deal with “green” plastics?, one of the talks at this year’s British Science Festival in Chelmsford.

Most plastic is made from materials derived from fossil fuels which doesn’t biodegrade (i.e., decompose by bacteria or other living organisms). It lingers, Dannielle explained, eventually breaking down into microplastic which infiltrates our ecosystem and causes a multitude of problems, including the ingestion of toxins that cling to microplastics. We are producing plastic at an exponential rate; 1.5 million tonnes in the 1950s, to 368 million tonnes in 2019.

So ‘green’ plastics, labelled bioplastic, plant-based, biodegradable’ – words that seem very eco-friendlycould appear to consumers as a great way to use single-use plastics that don’t impact the environment. Bioplastics are plastics made from natural renewable materials, like starch or corn, or anything that is not a fossil fuel. This is great, of course, as we know that using fossil fuels is not sustainable and terrible for the environment. But the issue with bioplastics is that they are not necessarily recyclable, and recyclability is the key.

This issue crops up again with biodegradable plastics. Biodegradable they may be, but without a timeframe or the required conditions for the plastic to decompose properly,  the word conveys no real meaning to a consumer. And again, they’re often not recyclable, so end up in a landfill.

“The good news is that the technology is coming”, said Dannielle. “The technology to make biodegradable plastics that are lovely, non-fossil fuel based and recyclable is on the way, but probably not for around another ten years.”

At the moment, as Dannielle explained in response to an audience question during her talk, recycling fossil fuel-based plastics and bioplastics together can contaminate the recyclate (the end-product of recycling), rendering it useless. Recyclable objects need to be carefully separated and councils need to be consulted on whether they recycle certain materials – which is a lot to ask of the general public.

There are also ethical considerations to be made around planting crops that are used to produce single-use plastics. As it stands, there really is no easy answer to the problem of plastics.

Dannielle’s advice to the audience was to reduce your plastic use where you can, and don’t be too easily taken in by packaging that seems to suggest that what you’re buying is eco-friendly.