Biodegradable Plastic: Are They Better for the Environment?

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Litter is a problem with a very negative social and environmental impact. Some people believe that one way to tackle this problem is to use biodegradable plastics as an environmentally-friendly solution for things such as plastic bags. This might seem sensible at first glance, but is it really better for the environment?

People hear terms such as ‘biodegradable’, ‘bio-plastic’ and ‘compostable’ and assume that these plastics are more ‘environmentally-friendly’. However, the reality is not so simple. The main issue here is a lack of understanding of the nature of compostable or biodegradable plastics and what bio-plastics are; their specific applications and the specialist treatment process needed to deal with these materials.

Profile Prof. Dr. Suwarno Hadisusanto, SU:

Prof.Dr. Suwarno Hadisusanto known as ecologist and marine biologist. He appointed as Dean of Faculty of Biology UGM (Gadjah Mada University) 2012-2016. Now he holds as Head of Ecology and Conservation Laboratory of UGM. He also Chairman of the Advisory Board of the Indonesian Biological Consortium (KOBI). By the year of 2012, he also appointed as Chief of KOBI until 2016. Until now he still holds as Head of UGM Graduate Program of Biology and Chairman of Senate Faculty of Biology UGM.

ARKdesign Quarterly (AQ):  What comes in your mind when we call about ocean pollution? What are the main causes of marine pollution?

Prof. Dr. Suwarno Hadisusanto (SH): The main cause of ocean pollution is actually happened in mainland. As we know that our ocean about 70 percent larger than the land and ocean itself that neutralize all the things that come from the mainland. As example, if we reversed that our mainland more broadly than the sea, you can imagine how awful our ocean pollution. The pollution that occurred in the sea now it all comes from land, and occurs most severely because of human activities. The most factors that causing marine pollution is due to plastic waste. Well, the plastic itself has a certain level of degradation and different decomposition capabilities. Most plastic waste need years to decomposition and this caused many problems in ocean environment.

AQ: What do we know today about the impact of plastic pollution on our food chain and indirectly on humans?

SH: Plastic waste in the oceans has varying degrees of degradation, mixing with other compounds and disintegrating into micro size or called micro plastics, and can be destroyed again into nano plastics. Micro plastics is visually difficult to detect, but still can be seen in turbid water, but below those measurement, it already in molecular size. Nano plastics are hard to detect because they are 330 microns in size, it must be seen with tools such as microscope, and the most dangerous part, it could be eaten by the organism. From the food chain, nano plastics eaten by phytoplankton and then eaten by zooplankton, and then eaten by small fish, which then small fish preyed large fish. Well, these fish can be eaten by birds and humans. It called a biomagnification process. In this biomagnification process occurs the absorption of pollution material resulting from the concentration level that exceeds the environmental balance. Logically, the higher the food chain then what accumulates in it also greater. So through this process, it is explained that humans have the greatest risk of being affected by pollution which is also caused by human activity itself.

The greatest impact on the human body, for example, microplastics and nanoplastics through the bloodstream affecting and caused damages in our brain, nerves, liver and kidneys. Other harmful effects in the human body can also accelerate the growth of unnatural cells, or commonly known as cancer.


In addition, the nanoplastics can mix with heavy metals in pregnant women and could affect the organ damage of the fetus, the case is named teratogenic. Examples of minamata disease as a nerve disorder due to acute mercury poisoning. For example, there have been cases of pollution of marine areas around Buyat Bay by PT Newmont Minahasa Raya in 2004. Many victims of citizens are exposed to health problems due to arsenic poisoning and mercury and heavy metals that pollute Buyat Bay.

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AQ: Human waste and littering become one of the factors that causes ocean pollution. Some researchers said that biodegradable plastic could be one of the solutions to reduce plastic trash, what do you think? What is actually biodegradable plastic and could you elaborate on what are the types of biodegradable plastic?

SH: I affirm that in the case of this plastic waste, there is no other way and the most effective solution is not using plastic at all, or at least reduce the plastic waste. Because using this biodegradable plastic still need time to parse longer than more environmentally friendly materials.

Plastic itself consists of seven types based on the the category:

  1. PP (Polypropylene): margarine container, yogurt - including safe category
  2. PET (Polyethylene terephthalate): jar - including the category safe to use but in certain temperatures can be toxin.
  3. HDPE (High density polyethylene): household cleaning substances - including low hazard categories but are estrogenic.
  4. LDPE (Low density polyethylene): bread wrap - categorized as having low hazards.
  5. PVC (Polyvinyl chloride): packaging of medicines - including category is quite dangerous.
  6. PS (polystyrene): Styrofoam: a dangerous category - can cause cancer, respiratory disorders
  7. Other Plastics: Polycarbonate - may have an effect on insulin resistance and autism.

AQ: UN report said biodegradable plastic “false solution” for ocean waste problem, what do you think about this report? Do you have any other solution regarding reduce plastic waste?

SH: This UN report in my opinion is true, because no matter how the most concrete solution yes to reduce the use of plastics. In my opinion, biodegradable plastics is not a solution that guarantees it will minimize damage. Because basically the plastic that just parse about 30-50 years. In one of my observation with my students and the Brebes community, to campaign program back to nature. This program start using household appliances using bamboo. This is one solution to reduce dependence on plastic materials, as we know plastic bags, or plastic cutlery. In terms of habit, it should start from the family, how to reduce dependence on plastic use. For example, refuse plastic bags when shopping, using plastic substitutes, bringing drinkable containers and many more alternative ways to reduce the use of plastic.

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AQ: What other solutions that involve the cooperation and education of communities, do you think is needed to combat plastic ocean pollution? Maybe some other system at the source of the problem?

SH: Education in the community is very important for proper waste management. It should be started since childhood in schools. The education about proper waste management to the community already running in various regions in Indonesia. In Yogyakarta, as far as I know that run well is Waste Bank. But there is a problem that needs to be solved. This system has grouped three containers of plastic, paper and organic waste, but later when taken by garbage men, when in the landfill then the garbage was mixed again. This is what we need to supervise. I think the government needs to provide trash trucks that directly contain three containers of paper, plastic and organic waste, this is very important I think. Well, the commitment from the government to guard waste management from household level to garbage men until landfill.


AQ: What is the most useful among other innovations that can be implemented in Indonesia being the 2nd largest plastic ocean polluter? Would you mind to give some examples?

SH: Indonesia became the second largest contributor of waste after China because of, firstly, a large population. Secondly, regulatory issues from the government are still not yet consciously realize a sustainable environment. And third factors are there is no strict sanctions for environmental pollution cases. No environmental pollution agencies have been seriously punished for environmental pollution. The government is very loose in this matter.

In terms of innovation utilization of plastic waste, which is currently applied and I also saw the test of the product: asphalt from plastic waste recycled. Anything else is recycled to plasterboard, but for this innovation I think it is dangerous, because the nature of plastic is flammable, when used in buildings will be dangerous. Another innovation is a tool to suck up plastic waste in the sea, I've also seen it in trial. In addition, there are tools installed in the human body while swimming, now this tool can suck up plastic waste in the sea.

AQ: If we need to stop both the demand and supply of plastics, how do you see a solution to this, is there any?

SH: One of the solution is creates an agency that employs personnel to monitor the movement of plastic waste from upstream to downstream. Concretely today for 24 hours, how much plastic waste should be sought not to go to the sea, for example in Jakarta, where the estuary is seen, this must be seen until later into the sea.

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It takes a lot of energy, it's like a rainfall registry worker, they will work every day. For this new team, of course there must be compensation for them. Well, the problem is whether the government has the seriousness of this magnitude to cope with plastic waste in the sea.

If for garbage grouping itself can actually be divided into metal, plastic, and paper waste. Well, each can be managed by the private sector and this can be a business for the private sector to make this waste recycled. The production is there because there is demand from the market.

If stopping directly the use of plastic is difficult automatically, it is already wide spread. So starting from ourselves as users to reduce the use of plastic, now each of these individuals will transmit each other to not use plastic waste, if we as users no longer use plastic so surely there will be no more plastic production.

AQ: Is there anything you want to add regarding with this theme?

SH: We recommend that all plastic consumption should be replaced by other materials, better use materials that have less risk in humans. For example, such plastic food wrappers should not be used primarily to wrap the hot food, as well as with styrofoam. It's very dangerous, the plastic that does not have food grade, is very dangerous to wrap food. A recent issue of micro plastics in drinking water in packaging (AMDK), there is no specific research in Indonesia yet. But the plastic that cannot be heated, if this AMDK that need to watch out if stored in hot conditions for a long time, this can be damaged and dangerous if consumed.

So again, reducing the use of this plastic is crucial to immediately campaigned through the media. How do we package the issue of use this plastic shovel into a national issue of course this becomes our homework together and certainly not stop in the discourse stage. But the concrete movement to running the campaign to stop the use of plastic waste and not only in media coverage then it disappear.