04 • 17 • 2019
A Guide to Bioplastics and Compostable Phone Cases
This Earth Day, we're celebrating our partner Pela Case for their dedication to creative innovation in the realm of sustainable alternatives to plastic, for use in common reusable consumer goods. Pela Case's mission began when founder Jeremy Lang witnessed firsthand the extent to which plastic pollution was affecting the natural environment, while on vacation in Hawaii with his family. He subsequently spent years experimenting with new materials to try and find an alternative to plastic that could be used in everyday products, with the vision of helping to create a waste-free future. Since their inception, Pela Case has been working to develop products made of environmentally sensible materials, with the goal of educating and inspiring a global community of people who are committed to making a positive impact on our planet.
Pela's line of plant-based, compostable phone cases was designed and created with a focus on low-impact manufacturing and plastic-free, minimal packaging. Last summer, we unveiled the limited edition Surfrider Foundation designs, sold in the Surfrider Shop and on Pela Case's website. In addition to their focus on more sustainable materials and practices, the company has instituted a closed-loop product recycling program, called Pela Cycle*. Pela Cycle encourages customers to send their old Pela Cases back to the company, to be recycled and turned into a new generation of Pela products. But what are Pela Cases made of?
What are bioplastics?
The term “bioplastics” can be tricky, as it’s been used to describe both fossil fuel-based plastics as well as plant or renewable resource-based plastics (often called bio-based). In Pela’s case, it’s a mixture of both. Pela's material is comprised of 45% bio-based content featuring flax shive, a byproduct of the flax oilseed harvest in Canada which is typically burned down at the end of each season. This means that almost half of the material is made from an annually renewable material born from the waste stream.
While bio-based single use plastics are still not a sustainable alternative to traditional single-use plastics, incorporating bio-based waste material into long-term durable products is a great way to reduce our reliance on harmful fossil fuels. Pela Cases are durable, compostable, long-term-use consumer goods that even have a closed loop end-of-life plan to keep their product continually recyclable, making their model a more sustainable alternative to traditional plastic goods.
Biodegradable plastic does not equal compostable plastic.
The term biodegradable refers to a material breaking down with the help of microorganisms. To be labeled a biodegradable plastic, there is no time limit set on when the product breaks down and these plastics can leave behind toxic residue. As such, the term can be misleading and sometimes used to make consumers believe a product is more environmentally-friendly than it actually is.
Alternatively, the term compostable is regulated and has a strict requirements to breakdown within an established timeframe without leaving toxic residue behind. A good definition is: “materials which biodegrade in a composting process through the action of naturally occurring microorganisms and do so to a high extent within a specified timeframe. The associated biological processes during composting will yield C02, water, inorganic compounds and biomass which leaves no visible contaminants or toxic residue/substances.” Compostable plastic must also disintegrate and become indistinguishable in the compost. Often times, products labeled as compostable can only meet these criteria in an industrial composting facility, meaning they can only provide effective plastic pollution prevention if disposed of at an industrial composting facility or are diverted and reincorporated into new products by the manufacturer (e.g. an in-house closed-loop system).
Home compostable means that materials are able to meet the “compostable” specifications without the need for an industrial composting facility. These materials must (1) biodegrade by 90 percent or more within 365 days (2) fully disintegrate in a way that makes the materials indistinguishable from the compost soil and (3) not have measurable ecotoxicity, through backyard compost methods such as worm bins or compost piles.
As an alternative to the Pela Cycle program, Pela Cases can be industrially composted, where available (check out compostingcouncil.org to locate your nearest industrial composting facility and see if they accept bioplastics). If your city does not have an industrial composting facility, or does not accept compostable bioplastics, you can just send your old Pela Case back so they can reuse the material!
Compostable plastic is not designed to biodegrade in a landfill.
Nor is it all designed to be conventionally recycled. If added to the recycling bin, certain bioplastics can contaminate recycling processes because they are chemically different from traditional plastics.
Compostable plastics need air, moisture and sunlight to break down properly, and most landfills are packed so heavily that they actually entomb waste, depriving it of these necessary elements for biodegradation. This environment can also release harmful greenhouse gas emissions during the breakdown of food waste and any sun-exposed plastics. If you choose to buy compostable plastics, it’s up to you to ensure that it ends up in the appropriate composting environment.
*Contact Pela to send back your Pela Case for recycling and to receive a discount on your next order.
For additional information on bioplastics and the rise of plastic alternatives, check out this Bioplastic Glossary on Surfrider's Beachapedia.