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Are biodegradable plastics a good solution for shotgun wads?

Plastic shotgun wads are an example of a single use disposable plastic.  Are biodegradable plastics a good solution for shotgun wads? 

I believe biodegradable plastics are the best solution to this issue.  Here’s why.

Conventional plastic wads will eventually be phased out through some combination of behavioral modification and regulation/legislation/taxation.  Maybe sooner, maybe later, but I think it will happen eventually.  Even with the best intentions, the reality is that shotgun wads are often littered into the environment.  It’s hard to shoot over water or into dense brush without leaving a wad behind.  In particular, most hunters spend a lot of time communing with Nature and are conservationists, and they don’t like sullying Nature with their plastic trash. 

But don't blame hunters, because they haven’t had good alternatives.  They also understand that an “environmentally friendly” hunting load that is under-powered or otherwise performs poorly is the furthest thing from environmentally friendly – plastic wads are preferable to crippled waterfowl. 

Until recently, the only solution was old-school fiber/felt wads, which are incompatible with steel and other hard, non-lead shot (unless a paper/fiber shot cup is also used).   These old-school wads tend to have poor gas sealing relative to plastic wads, thereby reducing velocity and/or payload when used in a crowded hull typical of heavier loads (e.g., waterfowl loads).

We believe GreenOps Ammo changes the equation, providing high-performance ammunition without leaving behind some microplastics for future generations.  Undoubtedly many others will feel this void as well.  For example, Rio is the first large manufacturer to commercialize shotshells using a bioplastic wad (in their case, a water-soluble biodegradable plastic wad).  Others can do so as well, but not profitably when competing against loads made with conventional plastic wads. 

Note that “biodegradable” plastic is not an all-encompassing solution to the problem of plastic waste.  Some biodegradable plastics are not very degradable, and only decompose moderately better than conventional plastics in, for example, marine environments.  For example, polylactic acid (PLA) is the cheapest biodegradable plastic by far.  Historical sales of PLA dwarf the combined totals of all other biodegradable plastics, but unfortunately PLA is not very biodegradable outside of industrial compost facilities.  And most of you aren’t shooting into industrial composters.

Another problem with biodegradable plastics (and one shared by conventional plastics) can be the additives, particularly plasticizers.  If a bioplastic degrades and leaves behind environmentally toxic additives, what’s the benefit?  Unfortunately, much of the performance advantages for conventional plastics are derived from decades of experience formulating with additives.  It is imperative to formulate biodegradable plastics with benign additives, and important for the public to be aware that just because a particular type of plastic is safe or non-toxic, that does not guarantee that a formulation of that plastic will be safe or non-toxic. 

For some of these reasons, many people in environmental organizations have a negative perception of biodegradable plastics.  Unfortunately, that negative reputation has been earned, and thus a lot of educating needs to be done to reverse that perception, at least for certain types of biodegradable plastics.  Too many people have a monolithic view of plastics, and it’s important to understand that not all plastic is the same, not all biodegradable plastic is the same, and not all formulations of a given plastic are the same.  These nuances and shades of gray tend to be obscured by the dogma of black and white.

The collection of European EPA equivalents recently published an outstanding report on biodegradable plastics.  It is objective and well-informed.  The report is generally unfavorable towards biodegradable plastics, and does not recommend use of bioplastics in many applications at present.  The exception is for “non-collectibles”, in particular shotgun wads, based on the recognition that inevitably by the nature of their use, shotgun wads will be littered into the environment. 

Are plastic shotgun wads really that big of a problem?  I’ve been told:  “Look at all the other plastic trash in the environment.  It dwarfs shotgun wads.  Why would they come after us?”

That’s a fair point, but four answers immediately come to mind. 

  • Worldwide, billions of shotshells are sold annually. I don’t know how many are actually shot on average each year, and I don’t know how many wads are picked up.  That said, any way you look at it, hundreds of millions of plastic wads are littered into the environment by shotgun users every year.  That’s a lot.  And for every beach cleanup where no wads are found, there are other areas where wads are seemingly everywhere. 
  • Unlike plastic bottles or plastic bags, which require something to go wrong in the process in order to be littered (either someone was lazy, or negligent, or the trash overflowed, or there was a gust of wind, etc.), a shotgun wad, when used normally and responsibly, still has a very good chance of winding up littered in the environment. That makes it different from other forms of plastic that should be contained (even if they are not).
  • Your average citizen does not know a shotgun wad when he or she picks it up at an ocean clean-up. Your average citizen uses water bottles or soda bottles, or spandex clothing which gives rise to microfibers released from your washing machine.  They use and like those products, don’t want to lose those products, and they have no animosity towards users of those products (such as themselves).  In contrast, your average citizen does not use shotgun wads, and there is a decent chance they may have some degree of animosity towards guns and the people who use them.  Moreover, spandex and water bottles are viewed by many folks as a necessity, or at least as something that has a good purpose.  Shotgun wads, like plastic straws, are viewed as unnecessary.
  • Much has changed in the last two years. Single-use plastics are being banned in Europe and Canada if alternatives exist.   Even if shotgun wads are not singled out, they will be included in the bans once legislators become aware of the issue.  Alternatives to conventional plastic shotgun wads exist.  Your great-grandfather shot just fine without conventional plastic wads, and now biodegradable plastic wads offer another alternative.

At some point, conventional plastic shotgun wads are likely to be banned or phased out in many, if not most, jurisdictions.  This will impact most of the factory-loaded shotgun ammunition being produced around the world. 

That said, conventional plastic shotgun wads are extremely good and extremely cheap, and they will have a performance and/or cost advantage over alternatives until plastic wads fall within the regulatory crosshairs.  We believe that our ammo, which utilizes a two-piece wad, offers performance advantages relative to one-piece wads, but we operate at a significant cost disadvantage.  Even if we had favorable economies of scale (which GreenOps does not have currently), our ammunition would still cost more to produce.  The same will be true for competitors offering alternatives to plastic wads, at least for many years. 

I will write more about the economics of shotgun ammunition in a subsequent post. 


Jason McDevitt, CEO

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