Last week at the EcoFemme workshop in Auroville we had a very interesting discussion about plastics. It came up because, of course, plastic is a key ingredient in disposable pads. It’s also a liner used on the bottom layer of the EcoFemme pads as a way to leak proof them. It’s a minimal amount for this reusable cloth menstrual pad.
Our conversation was over the language people use to talk about what happens to plastic after someone throws it away, burns it, buries it, or litters it. It seems that even among people who seem conscientious, the language has gotten muddied. Words like degrade, biodegradable, decompose, or even the new fangled “oxo biodegradable” suggest to the unschooled consumer that there is some new plastic substance out there that can be composted!
Importantly, if you look up the word biodegrade in the Oxford English Dictionary you’ll see that it is specifically is a verb tied to living matter, which plastic is not: “biodegrade |bʌɪəʊdɪˈɡreɪd| verb [no object] (of a substance or object) be decomposed by bacteria or other living organisms: most plastics will not biodegrade in landfill sites.”
They also won’t compost. At the Daily Dump, my colleagues tried to compost some of these garbage bags when they first came on the market and lo and behold: they did not even break down let alone begin to take on any biological processes.
This week I tried the quicker method of testing whether something is plastic or not, meaning will it only break down (and never fully break down) or is some other substance that might be recyclable or compostable. This method involves burning it. If it burns, generally it’s paper; if it melts it’s usually plastic. I chose 2 products: 1) EcoPlus garbage bag that claims it can be composted because they claim it’s biodegradable; 2) a sample food packaging bag from Happy Healthy Me, which on the back says it is “biodegradable” (it’s paper on the outside and lined with plastic). You can see the results above in the photos.
You can see from the photographs that both items melted. Thus, the claim that they can be composted or are biodegradable is deceitful at worst, ignorant at best.
To promise that plastic is anything other than what it is, is greenwashing. It means you’re using environmentally friendly language or symbols to push your product while covering up the fact that it’s anything but ecologically friendly. Perhaps if businesses could at least try to make their language a bit more honest – by sticking to the verb breaks down when discussing plastic – it would help the public to understand that plastic is plastic. Period.