Plastics simply don’t digest, it doesn’t mix well with nature. By 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in our oceans.
As our way of living is killing humanity, more and more researchers and scientists are now trying to solve the problem by redesigning the plastic value chain with innovative systemic business solutions. As most of us know, the majority of plastic varieties contain toxic chemicals, and the creation of plastic goods is often a harmful activity, making use of fossil fuel-based materials.
The demand for bioplastics has increased dramatically over the last few years, but there still tends to be a lot of confusion about the terms used in environmental claims.
Not all bioplastics are indeed biodegradable or compostable! And, not all biodegradable plastics are biobased!
Let’s clear things up! Bioplastics are plastics made from plants. They may or may not be biodegradable, may or may not be compostable, and they may or may not be toxic as a result of other chemicals used in their manufacture.
- Biobased plastics are made from renewable resources instead of non-renewable petroleum based resources. These renewable resources can include corn, potatoes, rice, soy, sugarcane, wheat, and vegetable oil. They are made by creating plastic polymers from these materials, through either chemical or biological processes. Examples of these types of plastics are polylactic acid (PLA) – derived from starch, polyhydroxybutyrate (PHB) – derived through microbial synthesis, and biobased polyethylene (bioPE) – produced from sugar cane.
- Biodegradable plastics are mostly made of corn, sugarcane or cellulose. They have the same properties as traditional petrochemicals plastics. They are known to produce less carbon dioxide gas when they break down. Another good thing is that they can be compostable. The plastics we call “biodegradable” are designed to biodegrade in specific environments, including marine environments, sunlight, soil, composting facilities and backyard home compost.
- Compostable Plastics are a new generation of plastics which are biodegradable through composting. They are derived generally from renewable raw materials like starch (e.g. corn, potato, tapioca etc), cellulose, soy protein, lactic acid etc. They are not toxic in production and decompose back into carbon dioxide, water, or biomass when composted. Some compostable plastics may not be derived from renewable materials, but may instead be derived from petroleum or made by bacteria through a process of microbial fermentation.
Sustainable solutions represent a great alternative, but they often come with high prices. And although this trend is rapidly evolving, the production process might raise some environmental questions.
In order to cultivate sustainable resources, we need farmlands. However, these lands are already used for our worldwide food demand, which is increasing every year. Taking more agricultural land out of production could cause a significant rise in food prices that would hit poorest people harder.
Secondly, bioplastics could contaminate conventional plastic recycling within the separation of the plastic during the recycling process. Mixing bioplastics with traditional PET in the products can be confusing for consumers. Are the bottles supposed to be deposited in a plastic bin or in the organic waste bin? If the two are mixed up in the trash, the whole collection becomes impossible to recycle. An increasing use of PLA may undermine the existing efforts to recycle plastics.
In addition to this, though bioplastics have a lower carbon footprint than petroleum-based plastics, its production is still not free. It costs water to grow corn and the use of pesticides and fertilisers costs pollution. Biodegradable plastics require specific conditions to digest properly (micro-organisms, temperature, humidity). If not, they may be worse for the environment, emitting greenhouse gases (methane gas) when breaking down if put in a landfill.
Finally, confusing jargon hampers public understanding, which makes it harder for consumers to grasp the issues and make positive choices when they shop. Indeed, “biodegradable” plastic might take decades to break down, while “compostable” material turns almost entirely into waste after a matter of months in a composter.
There is no such important matter than informing and educating people!
Despite the environmental questions, bioplastics still offer a great innovative approach to solving the plastic waste issue.
What we can do as individuals, instead of simply sending our plastics waste for recycling, is to remember the saying “Reduce, repair, recycle”. Recycling, though valuable and better than throwing something away, still requires the use of energy and water, therefore causing the creation of toxic waste. That’s why it is far better to reduce our need for plastics in the first place than to have to dispose of them afterwards!