Will bioplastics fix the plastic waste crisis?

Confused about compostable, biodegradable, eco-friendly? Who is not?

With environmental awareness being brought to a wider audience, there are many companies launching new materials in an effort to reduce carbon footprint, which is great! The unfortunate result is a bit more confusion to an already very confused consumer, who wants to do better but doesn’t know exactly how. As consumers are not able to differentiate conventional plastic, bio-based plastic and biodegradable plastic, it is likely that they will not dispose the packaging correctly. 

This article is an attempt to help you better understand bioplastics and their impact in the environment. Bear with me in the next minute or so!

Photo by Gareth Willey on Pexels.com
Bioplastics are defined as plastics that are bio-based, biodegradable, or both. This is how it goes:

Bio-based: means the source is from organic products such as corn, sugarcane, seaweed, etc. Those are renewable sources, different from petroleum, that is not renewable. Does that mean they are going to biodegrade in nature? Absolutely not. Bio-based is about the source (or feedstock used to make it) only. Some will have exactly the same end of life properties of a fossil-based resin (100 years or so to decompose), others may need special conditions to finally break down. The term biobased doesn’t inform about the end of life or recoverability of the material. Again, this is about the source ONLY. One thing you CAN tell is that it’s not 100% from oil, so the carbon footprint related to crude oil extraction and drilling is eliminated, which is good. However, whatever source or feedstock used, it needs to go through a chemical process to turn it into plastic, so there’s some carbon footprint there, of course.

One more thing: the definition of bio-based depends on the country regulation. In the US, for instance, if 25% of its composition is made of organic source and 75% from fossil fuels, it can still be called bio-based. 

Biodegradable: means it is designed to decompose into soil conditioning material, also known as compost. The conditions for that biodegradation to happen depends on the type of plastic and it’s usually NOT in the landfill. Common situations will be in a home composter or in an industrial composter, and there are a few certifications that will tell you the case (hopefully!). Remember: compostable does not mean it will necessarily degrade in nature, so if you throw it in your garbage bin, it still has years flying around in the landfill until it breaks down. The best way to dispose of compostable plastics is to send them to an industrial or commercial composting facility where they’ll break down with the right mixture of heat, microbes, and time. Okay, so you need a composter in your garden or access to an industrial composting facility. But wait, how many people in the US have a composter? Here’s a hint: EPA estimates only 4% of residential food waste is composted today. What about municipalities with access to industrial or commercial composting? Biocycle says 185 facilities in the US.

So, here’s what you need to do:
  1. Look closely at the label: is it saying home compostable or commercial/industrial compostable? If home compostable and you have one, good for you! If commercial/industrial compostable, go to #2
  2. Is there a composting facility available in your area? Look at your municipally website or ask at the recycling center. If yes, you’re covered! If not, the only other option is to throw it in the trash (sad face). That brings us to the next topic: contamination!

People usually think “it’s still plastic, so it goes into the recycling”. Sorry to disappoint you: because compostable plastics aren’t the same as traditional plastics, they should not go into the recycling bin. Recycling facilities cannot replicate the required conditions to compost biodegradable plastics. If bioplastics get mixed with recyclable resins (roughly only #1 and #2 today), they contaminate the stream… If bioplastics get sorted out, they will go to the landfill.

When in the landfill, research shows that bioplastics will not properly biodegrade. Actually, the same paper shows that when bioplastics are left in soil, seawater or open air they break down into microplastics, which is even more problematic.

As systems hopefully improve and become more available, compostable plastics can complete their lifecycle in facilities that provide the proper conditions for them to actually become compost.

Bottomline 

Bioplastics are a good attempt to offer consumers a new and lower carbon footprint packaging. HOWEVER, brand-owners carry the responsibility to educate consumers with easy and clear information on how to dispose it, as well as helping to develop the correct infrastructure to make it truly circular, otherwise it’s just greenwashing.

In the meantime, you can always try to reduce your plastic consumption by opting out when purchasing or taking out. Examples are produce bags, cutlery, straws, etc. Reusables are a great option too: bags, containers, bottles. The more you use an item (of any material), the lower is the carbon footprint, it beats single-use every time!

Examples of bioplastics:

Coca-cola “plant-bottle”, launched in 2009: 30% from renewable source, 70% from petroleum; non-biodegradable; recyclable through traditional recycling processes (same as petroleum-based bottles).

3D printing filaments made of PLA: 100% from cornstarch (renewable source), biodegradable under special conditions (not in your yard or landfill); recyclable through traditional recycling processes (however, most of cities do not collect PLA today).

Cutlery, cups, plates: usually made of a bioplastic called PLA, which is from cornstarch, biodegradable under special conditions (not in your yard or landfill); recyclable through traditional recycling processes (however, most of cities do not collect PLA today).

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