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In the search for alternative plastic materials that don’t sit in landfills for hundreds of years or form garbage islands in our oceans, some hard questions are being asked about the science underpinning the environmental value of biodegradable plastics. Andrew Masterson, news editor of the online Australian publication Cosmos, noted in a recent review of a new study, “If the replacement product is a heavier grade plastic bag billed as ‘biodegradable,’ there is little if any evidence to suggest it’s an environmentally helpful solution.”

Carrier bag bans, which have become a popular way to solve the problem of plastics in our oceans and other waterways, are an easy answer to a perceived problem. These bans have resulted in a variety of alternative solutions, including biodegradable bags. But are biodegradable bags any better? Masterson cites a new study in the journal Royal Society Open Science by a research team at the University of Edinburgh led by Jesse Harrison, that the science behind biodegradable bags as a viable solution is iffy, at best.

“Indeed, studies into the end-of-life rate of biodegradable plastic bags are so diverse in their findings, and so varied in their protocols, that they are of little use for informing policy or regulation,” Masterson writes in Cosmos. “Harrison and his team looked at available papers investigating the manufacture and whole-life-cycle of biodegradable plastic bags and found that the available findings were inconsistent and often poorly defined.”

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