by Greg Stevens
Science isn’t always lofty and abstract. It can get messy and political and aggressive. Dig into the process of science, and at times it can be as entertaining as any reality show. I want to give you a little bit of a background on a debate that became much like a reality show last year. The point behind this article will not be to decide which side is right: in fact, we will be actively soliciting a number of articles from experts over the next several months to present all sides of the discussion. The goal of this article will just be to give you a little background and contexts of what this debate is really like in the trenches, as it were, of the industry.
First, a simple statement of the two sides.
The Bio Side: These are the people who made biodegradable plastics from biological sources: the PLA cutlery, “corn plastic” and “potato plastic” that you have heard so much talk about. It is made from completely renewable resources: so it frees us from dependence on petroleum. It can be put in industrial composting facilities and it will biodegrade. On the down-side, it cannot be recycled with regular plastic. It cannot be produced by regular plastics manufacturing plants. It is expensive. And people don’t know what to do with it: most places don’t have a special “composting” alternative to trash and recycling, and although they are “compostable” they do not simply “disolve” when you put them in your garden.
The Oxo Side: These are the people who have created an additive that you can put in regular (petroleum-based) plastics that cause them to break down after they have been discarded. It does not require any special manufacturing plants to create it, and plastic that has been treated with the additive can be recycled like any other plastic. It is therefore relatively low-cost. However, it does nothing to help our use of petroleum, a non-renewable resource. And it does not technically biodegrade: the plastic simply breaks down into microscopic bits that are dispersed into the environment.
This simple two-paragraph summary of the debate makes it seem harmless enough: a simply debate between two visions, two solutions to the “plastics problem”. But this is no after-school special story of cheerful competition in a free market. No, this is a story of cut-throat business and true enmity. Both the “bio-” side and the “oxo-” side believe they have the real solution to the world’s plastics problem. Both sides believe that the other is misguided at best, and dishonest at worst. Both sides have invested huge sums of money into their own vision of the future. To quote an anonymous expert in the industry:
“The stakes in this debate are VERY HIGH. People in the field are afraid to take sides. They say let the market decide. No one is going to take part in a public debate. I know people on both sides, and, although they are cordial to each other in public, they hate each others’ guts. Tread with care.”
This makes it difficult for people who are not experts in the industry to sort fact from fiction, amidst all of the press-releases and fluff pieces on the internet. And sometimes, just sometimes, the true “reality show” nature of the industry can bubble to the surface…