Biodegradable Plastic Bags: A Sustainable Future

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  • Post last modified:November 1, 2023

Plastic pollution is a massive environmental problem, with million tons of plastic waste ending up in landfills and oceans yearly. Many consumers and retailers are looking for more eco-friendly alternatives to conventional plastic bags. 

One option is biodegradable plastic bags, also referred to as oxo-biodegradable plastic bags or biodegradable plastic shopping bags, which are designed to break down more quickly than traditional plastics. 

A recent survey found that educated consumers are willing to switch to biodegradable plastics and are willing to pay more for them.

While not perfect, the growth of biodegradable bags shows progress towards more sustainable options compared to conventional plastic.

Biodegradable plastic bags are those that decompose by microbial action in nature. But how effective are these biodegradable bags?

biodegradable plastic bags

To understand what led to the invention of biodegradable plastics, we need to start by understanding the world of plastics and the concerns surrounding them. 

Plastics- Major Environmental Concern

Plastics are long chained carbon polymers. The synthetic composition of plastics makes them extremely resistant against microbial action. This is also the reason for plastics to be termed as non-biodegradable.

With the use of plastics in almost every industry, the concerns regarding their accumulation are being raised. Discarded plastic bags, in particular, have shown a tremendous increase in the environment. The accumulation of plastic bags is not just a physical and visual concern but a serious environmental concern too. 

A plastic bag that carried your grocery would immediately be thrown away after use. However, it can take centuries for Mother Nature to discard it (break down the material)!

plastic waste
Photo by Magda Ehlers

Disposing plastics is hard. Burning them creates toxic gas releases. Recycling is often not a convenient option too. That’s because recycling needs segregation of different types of plastics which go through different processes. 

Plastics accumulated in the environment have grave implications on the soil, vegetation as well as wildlife. A big percentage of soil and water pollution results from unaccounted plastic bag dumping. 

Additionally, the oceans also have had to bear the brunt of loads of plastic bags being discarded. The depletion of marine life and impacts on corals around the world has been a cause of worry for environmentalists. 

With so much to worry about, plastics are still needed and used. 


That is simply because they’re just too good to replace. The strength, durability and versatility of plastics make them a favorite in all industries. 

A suitable alternative would hence need to come up with similar properties in addition to being environment-friendly. 

Pressure from scientific communities as well as the public has led to the invention of eco-friendly alternatives. 

Biodegradable plastic bags have evolved as an acceptable answer to the increasing problems of plastics. 

The Alternatives Available

With the significant volumes of plastics making their way into the environment, coming up with eco-friendly alternatives has been a subject of research in the last few decades.

biodegradable plastic bags

The environment-friendly variants of plastics are broadly categorized into three types:


As the name suggests, bioplastics are made out of biological material that’s easy to decompose. The idea is to get the excellent properties of plastics substituted by a material that’s kinder to Mother Earth. 

Corn Starch is a material that’s largely being used to manufacture bioplastics. Various types of bioplastics like PLA (Poly Lactide acid) are absolutely similar to their petrochemical counterparts. 

PLA biodegradable plastic bags
Poly Lactic Acid (PLA) ©

PLAs have worked great for the food industry and are being used to make food containers, food wrappings, etc. Another positive factor about PLA’s is their compostable nature. Decomposing is as simple as putting them in the compost bin. A good number of bioplastics can break down into smaller fragments within a few weeks!


You would have noticed the labeled plastic bags that supermarkets are using these days. The print usually says “biodegradable plastic bags” or “photodegradable” or “oxo-biodegradable plastic bag”.

What are these and how are they different from bioplastics? 

The term biodegradable means that a material can be broken down by microbes and bacteria. Biodegradable plastic bags are made with additives that help facilitate this breakdown. 

Some common types of biodegradable bag materials include:

  • PLA: Polylactic acid made from plant starches.
  • PBAT: Polybutylene adipate terephthalate made from fossil fuels.
  • PHA: Polyhydroxyalkanoates made by microorganisms.

Biodegradable plastics are those that decay in the presence of oxygen and light. Chemically, they’re just like their traditional petrochemical cousins. They just use certain pro-oxidant additives which makes them quicker to break down when the right conditions set in. 

Biodegradable plastic bags are the most highly used alternatives to traditional plastic bags. However, certain concerns regarding their break down process have raised eyebrows in the ecological communities. 

What makes a plastic bag biodegradable?

Biodegradable plastic bags are made with additives that help facilitate this breakdown. Some common questions people ask about these bags include:

  • What are biodegradable plastic bags made of? Most are made with plant-based materials like PLA or PBAT.
  • Where can I buy biodegradable plastic bags? Major retailers like Target and Walmart offer them.
  • Who created biodegradable plastic bags? 

The first commercial biodegradable plastic bags were developed in the 1980s by Italian chemist Catia Bastioli. Bastioli was inspired to develop biodegradable plastic bags after seeing a news report about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a massive accumulation of marine debris in the North Pacific Ocean.

How quickly do biodegradable plastic bags break down?

It is important to note that Bioplastic bags, while safer, may still persist in landfills. On the other hand, compostable bags are a type of biodegradable bag designed to fully decompose in industrial composting facilities. 

It must be asserted that an incomplete breakdown of biodegradable plastic bags can create smaller plastic fragments which are a threat to wild and marine life. 

Here are some common questions around biodegradable bags:

  • Are biodegradable plastic bags really biodegradable? Most will fully break down under proper conditions.
  • Which plastic bags are biodegradable? Look for bags labelled PLA, PBAT, PHA or certified compostable.
  • Are biodegradable plastic bags safe? Biodegradable bags are generally considered safe, but may leave residue.

Experts caution that biodegradable labels can be misleading.  According to a UN report, most biodegradable plastics require specific conditions to decompose, and may still leave toxic residues. Complete breakdown can take months or years. PHA plastics tend to degrade the quickest.

Reviews show that even biodegradable bags can take years to decompose and release methane in landfills. 

The truth is, anaerobic digestion of biodegradable plastic bags in the landfills or even in the oceans often does not happen as suggested theoretically. With the absence of the right temperature, light, and oxygen conditions, the breakdown fails. 

Generally,  biodegradable plastic bags buried in soil starts breaking down in 3-6 months and completely decompose within 2-3 years, while oxo-biodegradable bags break down into microplastics, creating pollution.

Recycled Plastics

Recycled plastic and plant-based bags are other eco-options.

Recycling old plastics into new ones has been the easiest solution to the plastic problem. Recycled plastics are now being used to produce a wide range of products like outdoor furniture, gates, etc. 

Recycling, however, has its own concerns. Recycling needs segregation at the source which is not always convenient. 

 Different plastics can have different molecular composition. This means that they have different recycling mechanisms too. Plastic bags, for example, may need a different process than plastic bottles and packaging materials. 

Additionally, recycled plastics come at a lower grade and can not be used to create their parent products. This causes concerns over the usage of recycled plastic bags for usage in industries like food and hospitality.

Effectiveness of Biodegradable Plastic Bags

Now that we’ve understood the key types of eco-friendly plastics being commonly used, let’s dive in further. 

Bioplastics appear to be clear winners, right? Well, not really. If you consider the fact that they’re made out of agricultural products, the picture isn’t as merry. Using Agri land for production of biofuels can significantly affect the food industry and the food prices around the world!

Biodegradable plastic bags are hence gaining popularity in the marketplace. Especially, the OXO- BIODEGRADABLE PLASTIC BAGS.

Other forms of biodegradable plastics include the hydro and the photo degenerating varieties. However, the absence of adequate water or light conditions causes an incomplete break down which is an environmental concern. 

The oxo biodegradable plastic bags are arguably the best in terms of natural decay and minimal environmental impacts. 

The oxo biodegradable shopping bags are similar in composition to the traditional petrochemical plastics. However, they come with the inclusion of a small amount of “pro degradant”. As insignificant as the step looks, it completely changes the behavior of plastic material. 

The additives re-engineer the polyethylene and polypropylene polymers to make them biodegradable. These biodegradable plastic bags hence come with a limited life cycle. Once the programmed life is completed, the oxidation process starts, followed by degradation. 

The additive included in the manufacturing process breaks down the molecular structure of the plastics to a stage that can be taken over by the bacterial world. 

The microorganisms then create complete decomposition which turns the material to CO2, water and organic matter. A situation that’s easy for Mother Nature to take control of. 

Oxo-biodegradable plastic bags can also be recycled using traditional techniques. The concerns over large scale waste accumulation are easily addressed. The eco-friendly plastic bags either get recycled through the usual channels or degrade in the environment through natural processes. 

Interesting figures for Biodegradable Plastics

According to a 2022 report by MarketsAndMarkets Research, the global biodegradable plastics market size is projected to grow from $1.2 billion in 2022 to $2.3 billion by 2027, at a compound annual growth rate of 14.5% during the forecast period. 

The report cites growing adoption of biodegradable plastic bags as a key driver.

Following are some interesting figures and projects for biodegradable plastics and bioplastics:

  • Global bioplastic production rose up to 1.5 million tonnes in 2011 from a meager 262,000 tonnes in 2007. It grew up to 2.11 million tonnes in 2018 and is predicted to go up to 2.62 million tonnes in 2023. 
  • In 2015, bioplastics and biodegradable plastics account for 1% of the share of total plastic production globally. It is expected that the figure will rise to around 2.5% by the year 2020.
  • Packaging is the largest application of bioplastics and takes up around 65% of the total production. 
  • New fibers like PEF (Polyethylene furanoate) which are 100% bio-based are predicted to enter the global markets by the year 2023. The fiber comes with superior properties like heat resistance and is hence being eyed with interest by the food and packaging industry. 

A sustainable future

While the multiple applications of plastics cannot be denied, it is true that the “green planet” is struggling to breathe. 

The dumps of plastic bags have been steadily growing. The only promising alternative that science has come up with are biodegradable plastic bags. With their fast and natural break down capacities, they can bring forth a significant change in the current pollution levels. 

As consumers demand more eco-friendly bags, companies like BioBag and Trader Joe’s are expanding their biodegradable options. More research into rapidly decomposing bioplastics provides hope.

Having said that, biodegradable plastic bags cannot alone solve the problem. The need to dispose them as per the guidelines is required. Additionally, no transition is possible without a change in consumer behavior. The responsibility to work towards a sustainable future needs to be shouldered together.

The pursuit of eco-friendly plastic alternatives remains a complex journey, marked by both challenges and promising opportunities, while also leaving ample room for future advancements. 

Biodegradable bags aren’t a silver bullet solution, but they demonstrate progress towards more sustainable packaging, along with reducing single-use plastics. Their increased adoption shows promise for a greener future –  but proper disposal and reuse is still important. 

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