Biodegradable vs. Recyclable Plastics: What’s Better for the Environment?

In creating an environmentally sustainable plastic product, you’ll encounter different kinds of eco-friendly resins. Here’s an introduction to the advantages and disadvantages of biodegradables and recyclables in plastic molding.

Biodegradable Plastics

Biodegradable plastics are made from traditional petrochemicals treated with biodegradable additives. Under the right conditions, these additives attract microbes that do the hard work of breaking the plastic down more quickly than for traditional plastics.

Biodegradable plastic is ideal for items that are meant to be disposable, such as:

  • single-use food containers
  • Packaging dunnage, and
  • plastic utensils that don’t have to stand up to repeat use.

Choosing biodegradable resins

Not all biodegradable resins are equally biodegradable. Some don’t degrade well in landfills — they’re better off in an industrial composting facility. Also, because of the chemical treatment that makes them biodegradable, most can’t be recycled alongside traditional plastics.

If you’re considering biodegradable plastics in your blow molding project, it’s crucial that you pick the rights ones:

  • Make sure the resins your supplier uses meet American Society of the International Association for Testing and Materials (ASTM) standards for biodegradability.
  • Consider biodegradable plastics that perform well in anaerobic environments like landfills.
  • Stay informed about current eco-plastic trends.

Bioplastics vs. biodegradable plastics

Biodegradable plastics are often confused with bioplastics, but the two are very different.

  • Biodegradable refers to plastics made from treated petrochemicals.
  • Bioplastic refers to plastics made from renewable feedstocks, such as wood, corn, soy, sugar cane, and grasses

Bioplastics are often compostable. Composting takes biodegradability a step further by breaking down rapidly into matter that can be used to support plant life. Bioplastics are best suited for products that are often thrown away with food and other organic materials:

  • Straws and party cups
  • Disposable plates and bowls
  • Single-use utensils

Cost is currently the main drawback of bioplastics, especially when crude oil and natural gas prices are so reasonable. According to John Standish, the technical director of the Association of Plastic Recyclers, “Making polymers directly from traditional petroleum sources is by far more economical, so as appealing as this strategy is, it’s not economically practiced very much today.”

For larger products and other items that are more likely to be reused, you may want to consider recycled resins.

Plastics made from recycled resins

Recycled plastics are made from resin processed from post-consumer and post-industrial virgin plastics. Going with recycled resin is ideal for blow molding products that are not meant to be thrown away. Many common blow molding items can be made from recycled materials:

  • Large items with a long lifecycle, such as furniture, play structures, and sporting goods
  • Industry-specific parts, such as medical equipment, auto parts, and device shells
  • Plastic utensils, flatware, and cups that are durable enough for repeated reuse
  • Products that consumers are used to recycling, such as food containers, water and juice bottles, and other common packaging materials

Americans recycle over 3 billion pounds of plastic bottles alone each year. In 2014, the total annual pounds of plastic bottles collected increased by 97 million pounds. Recycling plastics saves non-renewable resources, offsets the amount of waste that would end up in landfills, and reduces greenhouse gas emissions.

Saving resources

Conserving valuable non-renewable resources is paramount for sustainability efforts. As plastics recycling levels increase, so does the amount of PET, HDPE, and PP resins recovered. This, in turn, saves fossil fuels: recycling one ton of plastic saves 16.3 barrels of oil.

That means that each year, more than 24 million barrels of oil are saved in the United States just from recycling blow molded plastic bottles.

Freeing up space in landfills

Keeping recycling out of landfills and incinerators is also a boon for the environment. Landfills take up space, leach harmful chemicals into the ground, and emit greenhouse gases.

The amount of waste that goes to landfills in the United States has dropped from a high in 1990 of 145.3 million tons each year to 134.3 million tons in 2013. Recycling efforts are a big part of this reduction. In 2013, 65 million tons of waste were recycled.

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions

Reducing greenhouse gases is key in the fight against climate change.

The process of extracting, mining, and producing new resources emits carbon dioxide, a harmful greenhouse gas. Every ton of plastic that’s recycled saves about a ton of CO2 from entering the atmosphere. Further, the making recycled plastic resins generate only half the greenhouse gases of making virgin resin.

Looking for more information on using recycled plastics for your blow molded product? Check our page on Stewardship & Recycling.