An Oceans Abcdarium created by the University of Applied Sciences in Mainz, Germany


Hannah Siehoff

In recent years awareness of the physical and chemical risks plastic waste poses to marine life has been rising. Unfortunately, the amount of plastic waste in the oceans is increasing, too. Many researchers are therefore looking for alternatives, with a large quantity of new materials recently developed and subsequently marketed as “biodegradable”. According to European Bioplastics, an association that promotes the interests of the bioplastic industry, the term bioplastic refers to a material that is bio-based, biodegradable, or both. This means that some of these materials might be of artificial origin, but biodegradable—while others are not, even though they are nature-based. Only about two thirds of bioplastics currently on the market are biodegradable. There is also a difference between substances that are biodegradable and those that are compostable, a nuance which often escapes public awareness. The necessary conditions for reducing a material to water, carbon dioxide, and biomass can usually only be created in industrial plants, not in a natural environment—so even bioplastics are not necessarily environmentally friendly. The association advises against framing biodegradable plastics as a solution to the problem of marine litter. A publication by the United Nations Environment Programme also warns that public misconceptions about bioplastics may also have a negative impact on their own perceived responsibility, and by extension their behavior—particularly with regards to littering. The UNEP report concludes that no significant decrease in the quantity of plastic entering the ocean—nor in the wider risk it poses to the environment—is to be expected from the use of biodegradable plastic.This series of illustrations captures snapshots from the sea. The strange allure of the light reflections on the waste contrast with the dangers posed to the marine ecosystem.

Sources: European Bioplastics: Frequently Asked Questions on Bioplastics, Berlin, 2022.

United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), “Biodegradable Plastics and Marine Litter. Misconceptions, concerns and impacts on marine environments”, Nairobi 2015.