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Degradable, compostable and biodegradable plastics may seem like recent inventions, but some have been around for a very long time. One such plastic is cellophane – and it’s now experiencing resurgence in popularity.
Cellophane being plant based didn’t click with me until I was doing some research recently for a restaurant employee who was looking for a biodegradable bag suitable for use with a particular food application – it was only then that it clicked with me the “cello” in cellophane stands for cellulose – the structural component of plants.
Cellophane was invented in 1900, but wasn’t commercially available until 1912. At that point it was mainly used for wrapping candy. When moisture-proof cellophane hit the market in the late 1920′s, it rapidly increased in popularity until the 60′s when alternative petro-chemical based plastics became popular – and we all know how that worked out for the planet.
Quite a few modern bioplastics use plants, but often they use corn as the primary component. Similar to using “food as fuel“; should we be using a grain or a crop grown on land suitable for producing food for non-food uses when arable land (without further deforestation) is becoming a diminishing resource?
Cellophane has an edge here as it can be made from farmed trees or from hemp; which can grow in relatively harsh conditions.
Regarding its composting and biodegradable attributes, I’ve read various reports stating uncoated cellulose film degrades within 10 days to 1 month when buried and nitrocellulose-coated cellulose in 2 months to 3 months. Complete biodegradation of cellulose film is between 1 – 2 months for uncoated products, and from 2.5 to 4 months for coated cellulose products. In a fresh water environment, the rate of biodegradation is only 10 days for uncoated film and a month for coated cellulose film.
As far as I know, corn based bioplastics take far longer to degrade and there’s also some issues with recycling bioplastics made with corn as they are currently classified as a number 7 plastic resin, meaning “other”.
That’s the good news about cellophane; but as with most things, there are some negative aspects too environmentally speaking.
Cellophane is made by dissolving plant fiber in alkali and carbon disulfide to create something called viscose. The viscose is then reconverted to cellulose in cellophane form after a sulfuric acid and sodium sulfate bath. The cellophane is further treated with glycerol to make the dry cellophane less brittle. The cellophane may then be coated with nitrocellulose or wax to make it impermeable to water vapor. A few nasty chemicals in that process – for example, high levels of carbon disulfide are toxic; affecting the nervous system.
However, given the amount of processing and nasties it takes to turn petro-chemicals; i.e. chemicals derived from crude oil, into plastics and the damage those plastics do long after having been discarded, it would seem to me that cellophane is probably still better environmentally speaking. Stacked up against corn based plastic bags and wraps, the better/worse distinction is a little harder to discern.
Cellophane films and bags are readily available – just run a query on the terms in your favorite search engine to locate a stockist.
Tip: When composting cellophane, scrunch it up instead of laying it flat on your compost pile. This allows for air pockets and some air is necessary when composting any material.
Trivia: another plastic product that’s been around for at least a hundred years also based on plant material is linoleum.
Find out more about compostable and other types of plastic here