Crisp Air, Falling Leaves, and Biodegradable Plastics

How harvest season in the Midwest reminds us of the global agricultural impact of the plastics industry

It’s the end of September! And around here, that means we start thinking about fall. Lots of fall traditions take place in the Midwest including taking in the crops. That led us to thinking about how the plastics industry is connected to agriculture and the relationship between the industries.

We know what you’re thinking, “…plastic and agriculture just don’t mix…,” and we understand why you might think that initially. But the truth is, plastics may just be more closely intertwined (and positively so) with the agricultural industry than you might think.

Let’s start with biodegradable* and compostable plastics. We are sure you have heard about the production of these types of materials and about more research into this area in recent years. The goal is to make a product that will degrade more quickly and only leave behind natural end-products like water or carbon dioxide…and not methane or other bad toxins!

Not all plant-based material is actually biodegradable and some of it takes a long time to degrade in a natural environment. So, this means some of this “waste” would need to be gathered up and placed in a manmade industrial recycling environment to help the material degrade more quickly. The biodegradable nature of plastics can’t completely solve the problem of plastic pollution and especially if they are not properly disposed; but, the progress is still a win considering the alternative.

There are several of these materials that are already commonly used. Biomass-based plastics are made of starch and cellulose obtained from crop residues and wood from trees. Here’s an example you may recognize… a plant-based product used at many of our favorite eateries. Unfortunately, these are way too often seen along the highways, in the ditches, and along the fence rows of our green spaces. If we could get to the point where those littered fast-food containers would just disappear, now that would make a noticeable impact!

Another example you may recognize is also one of the most memorable ones. The initial compostable Sun Chip bag was so loud it became the butt of late-night television jokes and Facebook memes everywhere! We aren’t kidding…look it up! The bag was obtrusively loud!  Eventually, Frito-Lay made some adjustments in reducing the percentage of plant mass used in the production of the bag and we could once again sneak snacks in the middle of the night without waking the entire neighborhood! Sometimes there’s a fine line between being eco-friendly and pleasing your customers. Luckily, the manufacturer was able to find a conscientious balance.

Those of us in the industry recognize that it is necessary for both the world of plastics and agriculture to work together to continue to progress with these types of materials. Eco-friendly products are definitely becoming more common place…we challenge you to take note of the products you use and how they are both made and disposed. If each one of us does this and makes a conscious effort to use more bio/eco-friendly goods, it will make a cumulative difference. It will still be necessary for consumer behavior to stay focused on reducing consumption or recycling plastic to benefit from the change from conventional fossil fuel plastics to biodegradable plastics.

So, the next time your mind wonders as you drive down a corn lined country road or when you see some type of pollution, which inevitably ends up along the roadside, we hope you will think about the connection beyond that which you see on the surface. Instead, consider how the plastic and agricultural industries indeed work together and how each small step will lead to a larger impact for us all.

*Biodegradability NoteStarch-based plastics can be compostable or biodegradable.

Like degradable bags, biodegradables are often still plastic bags that have microorganisms added to break down the plastic. Compostable bags are made of natural plant starch, and do not produce any toxic material. Compostable bags break down readily in a composting system through microbial activity to form compost.  Compostable variants require 90 days to degrade in industrial facilities, while the biodegradable ones require 100 days for 46% to degrade and up to two years to degrade completely.