Have you ever noticed those small “novelty” items that hang between food groups in a supermarket? They are the types of products which annoyingly catch your attention for a split second and are completely unrelated to what you’re looking for, glitter party hats, 500 packs of straws, and what seems to be a strange market for 60cm marshmallows. I was strolling through the supermarket on a quick routine stop, collecting the final ingredients for dinner when I ran across an eye catching one, a 10 pack of biodegradable plastic knives.

Seeing as single-use plastics and reusable bags are in the limelight lately, I have been intrigued to see how companies who are facing this pressure dodge the bullet and ultimately utilise it as a marketing tactic. Why? Because we are in the midst of a serious environmental crisis and products like this are setting a wrong example for how we should be answering it.

Next time you stroll down the isles, take a moment to look at how we function as a whole. Competition. Everyone is vying  for your attention and what you to spend your money on. It’s a simple case of survival of the fittest. The manner in which that attention is captured can vary, but the one which everything all boils down to is what it will cost us versus the gain we make. Much like a lion will singling out the weakest in the herd to kill, we have built our modern day equivalent hunting holiday sales to fulfill our appetites.

We demand economical solutions. Combine that with our advancement of industrial capabilities since the early 1900’s and an increasing population, it has created a fierce consumer market ripe with demand and capability.

Plastic solely as a material is great. it is easy to mould into repeatable complex forms, it’s customisable for differing applications, and best of all, cheap. Plastic has allowed us to ship food across the world safely, perform complex medical feats, and brought us into the advanced world we live in. In saying that, it has come at a serious environmental cost, we are at a point of critical imbalance where we consume so much with so much concern for our wallets, however little for our world.

So, why does a 10 pack of disposable, biodegradable knives prompted me to write an internet rant? It’s because it is marketed in a way which appeals to our guilty concious, however cleverly disguises the facts and plays into the exact problem we need to avoid. When we read a bit more about the product, we can  see the following


“BIODEGRADABLE”

Renewable resources: Contains Corn Starch

Made from:

  • 45% Constartch
  • 51% Polypropylene
  • 3% Coupling Agent
  • 0.2% Antioxident
  • 0.8% EVA

Paints a fairly good picture right? It’s an interesting debate, but the words used and way it is presented makes us as a consumer feel that this is the right alternative. Lately buzzwords like “Biodegradable” are thrown about like Pokemon in late 90’s, and just like those kid’s parents, that exact meaning can be confusing. The key realisation here is that essentially everything is Biodegradable, given the right environment and time frame. That “right” environment compiles of regulated temperatures, humidity and soil conditions which is often unseen in regular landfills, combined with time frames ranging anywhere between 3-100+ years.

What we need people to understand when you see biodegradable, it doesn’t mean you should feel good about throwing that product in the bin with the assumption it will just dissolve away with the mix of mother earth’s wooden spoon, it’s simply a tactful way to avoid the problem.

The correct term for products like this which we should be looking out for is compostable. Composting encompasses several key factors, one of which is biodegradation to an acceptable size (<2mm particles), in a sustainable manner and within much shorter time frames (3 – 6 Months). There are several standards being developed for manufacturers to adhere to which we will see being adopted in the near future. These include leaving no heavy metals and negative effects on the composting grounds for plant regrowth.

Mufasa laid the groundwork for us to follow years ago, “When we die, our bodies become the grass, and the antelope eat the grass. And so we are all connected in the great Circle of Life”. So, much like a stubborn teenage Simba avoiding all his problems, why did it take us this long to listen? Price. Hanging out with a meerkat and warthog while sliding down waterfalls is a much sweeter gig.

With recycling becoming less of a viable process due to China no longer accepting waste as a commodity earlier this year, we are faced with a backlog of waste with nowhere to go. Countries are forced to either bury it in the ground or sort and stockpile it in containers in hope that the recycling door may open again. Unfortunately, our consumption will not slow to accommodate for this and it’s going to take more than a few stern words from a mystical lion cloud to convince us otherwise. It’s only when we are faced with the real gravity of the situation we will react, and unfortunately I feel we haven’t truly seen the barren pridelands yet.

I would like to hope that we can reach a point where the consuming world we live in includes a collective consciousness for the environment and the products we create, rather than just focus on the margin we can add with a disregard for what happens after. How this is achieved is another much larger discussion, however to boil it down I’d like to imagine that a simple pack of biodegradable knives can at least complete a closed loop via a composting ecosystem as perceived, without pulling the wool over our eyes.

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Evan Thomas

About Evan Thomas

Industrial designer at Blender Design. A curious and adventurous soul, driven by making cool ideas a reality.

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