How do we get our plastic problems to disappear? Biodegradeable vs Compostable solutions.

Article by Cristina Hachmann Civil and Environmental Engineer student and Liberty Denman Bsc. Marine Biology and Coastal Ecology, science communication manager at GhostNetwork.

How many times have you bought something online, seen they use a plastic bag and thought no thank you!? But then your mind is eased with the following statement, ‘don’t worry it’s biodegradable’ and you feel like you’re in the clear? Now is a good a time as any to burst that bubble. Unfortunately, biodegradable plastic isn’t necessarily any better. So what’s wrong with it and are there any solutions? This is a particularly hot topic for fishing gear, being a readily used form of plastic, we are racing towards finding more sustainable methods to prevent ghost net fishing and ALDFG.

Technically speaking, those marketing plastic as biodegradable are bending the rules a bit. A biodegradable material is defined as a natural product that can be disintegrated into natural environments by the action of living things, such as microorganisms like fungi and algae. By this, they mean anything biodegradable will break down quickly and safely into mostly harmless compounds. The problem is, when plastic breaks down, a) it takes ages and b) the compounds aren’t harmless. For example, vegetables take around one to five months to biodegrade, whereas nylon fabric (the material of which most traditional fishing nets are made from) takes around 30 to 40 years. Really redefining our definition of ‘quick’. Moreover, the environmental conditions surrounding the material affect the rate of degradation, such as temperature, humidity and presence of light and oxygen. The rate of degradation will be significantly slower with low light, air or moisture, which is more often than not the conditions expected at a landfill site, where these materials end up. 

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Image: Green dot bioplastics

Yes, yes, okay we have only talked about problems, and we want solutions, always! What are our solutions…Compostable. Compostable items are natural products that, when left in the optimal conditions, break down into natural elements producing nutrients in the process. From start to finish, this normally takes around 90 days, leaving nothing but organic waste rich in nutrients that also store carbon. Win-Win! 

The relevance to the fishing industry? We need to regress, to progress. We have discovered the historical use of fishing nets to date back to Norse mythology and Egyptian tombs from 3000 BC as well as all over the world from Eastern Mediterranean to North-East Asia and Europe. Before plastic came flooding into the fishing industry, early nets were woven from grasses and other plant materials and over time, moved to cotton fibres. Now, nets are typically made from artificial polyamides such as nylon, which is a complicated way to say that they are made from plastic materials. Although there are still some communities and fisheries in the world that continue to use wool or silk threads, this isn’t the practice adopted by the masses.

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  • Image: Fredrik Ohlander

Still, this practice has not entirely died out, Cristina spoke to Sixto Roas, a Peruvian fisherman, who continues his practice of artisanal fishing in Mancora, Peru. He told her; “sadly before, the use of plastic was non-existent in artisanal fishing, we used sugar paper or even jute sacks (bags made out of fibres of the yute plant) to preserve the product”. Sixto spoke about the drastic change with the appearance of plastic almost everywhere and how dependent everyone became on it. Even the methods of fishing changed, allowing for more integration of plastic and the damage on the ecosystem was evident, “resulting in a contamination that sadly passes the bill” (this is a common Peruvian saying that means that the consequences are greater than the means to pay for them). Sixto Roas sees the drastic changes that have taken place in the ocean since the arrival of plastic not so long ago and urges more awareness and environmental change.

In recent years we have seen a shift, a more widespread consciousness of sustainability, and an active attempt to use less plastic. We are also starting to see this in modern fishing. There are some great companies stepping up and trying to find a more sustainable way of fishing. Seabird, for example, the “formulator and producer of compostable bioplastics” are the founder of the first biodegradable net designed in Europe. Seabird first spread its wings back in 2011 and have fully committed to the goal of producing 100% biodegradable and compostable bioplastic compounds. Currently, they have designed fishing nets that are composed of between 35% – 60% plant-based materials with the rest refined bio petroleum derivatives. These last between 3-5 years of use, then can be industrially compostable or biodegradable in the marine environment.

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Image: The Nature Conservancy / Jason Houston

Seabird are not alone in their mission, we’re not there yet but we’re definitely on our way. It’s a race against time to progress in a different way, a more sustainable way. Be it through compostable materials or truly biodegradable ones.

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