But allow me to digress for a moment. Words like “decompose,” “disintegrate,” “degrade,” and “biodegrade” do not all mean the same thing. Suppose you put a piece of plastic in a compost heap and found no visible trace of it six months later—does that mean it has biodegraded? And if so, can we safely say we’re talking about an environmentally safe product? The answer to both questions is “not necessarily.” Some so-called “biodegradable” plastics, for instance, are made of a blend of starch derivatives and conventional petroleum-based polymers. The styrofoam packing materials action of bacteria in warm, moist soil breaks down the starches in these materials, but leaves countless tiny particles of plastic that have a mass only slightly less than that of the original product. And all those parts that don’t break down continue taking up space without contributing any nutrients to the soil—in fact, they may actually contribute toxins. So what we’re looking for in a truly “green” plastic is one that can either decompose completely via microbial digestion (into such products as water and carbon dioxide), or at the very least, leave only inert substances behind.
Natural Wonders styrofoam packing materials
The thing of styrofoam packing materials is, this is generally not in the nature (so to speak) of synthetic polymers. The interesting solutions, therefore, are largely to be found in biopolymers, a class of materials that look, feel, and act like the plastics we all know and love, but which, owing to their natural sources, can also serve as food for bacteria. Products made directly from cornstarch, other starches, or cellulose certainly fit that styrofoam packing materials description.
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