Bioplastics are becoming increasingly common in our lives, but are they good or bad for the environment?
As with so many things, the answer is not straightforward, so Everyday Plastic thought they'd try to clear up some common assumptions surrounding the terms often seen on food and drink packaging, and work out whether they help or hinder the plastic problem.
❓ What are bioplastics? Bioplastics are an alternative to traditional fossil fuel-based plastics. They're made from renewable resources like corn starch, sugarcane or even algae. ❓ Biodegradable These materials will break down through the use of living organisms. However, the time it takes for them to break down can vary significantly and may still leave behind microplastics. ❓ Compostable A subset of biodegradable plastics, compostable bioplastics break down into natural components, but rely on the correct composting conditions using high levels of heat, humidity and oxygen. They won’t break down in home compost, the sea or in landfill. ❓ Home compostable These materials will break down in your home compost bin, along with food waste. They typically take up to 90 days, but often many more depending on size and composting conditions. Unfortunately, some products labeled as "home compostable" may still contain additives or coatings that leave behind residues.
The role of bioplastics is nuanced: they could be part of the solution to the plastic problem when used thoughtfully and when they genuinely reduce environmental impact. However, they also have the potential to exacerbate the problem when their production, use, or disposal is not carefully managed. Bioplastic pros
Reduce dependency on fossil fuels: Bioplastics are made from renewable resources, reducing our reliance on petroleum-based plastics. This helps conserve fossil fuels and reduces carbon emissions.
Potential for biodegradability: Some bioplastics are designed to biodegrade, which can help mitigate the long-lasting environmental impact of traditional plastics.
Promote sustainable agriculture: The cultivation of bioplastic feedstocks like corn or sugarcane can promote sustainable agricultural practices, supporting rural communities and reducing harmful monocultures.
Public awareness: Bioplastics have increased consumer awareness about the environmental impact of plastics, encouraging more eco-friendly choices and sustainability discussions.
Complex end-of-life scenarios: Bioplastics often require specific conditions to decompose efficiently, and not all of them are truly compostable or biodegradable. This can lead to confusion and mismanagement, potentially adding to waste problems.
Resource competition: The production of bioplastic feedstocks can compete with food crops, potentially driving up food prices and straining resources.
Limited recycling infrastructure: Many bioplastics aren't compatible with traditional recycling systems, which can lead to contamination and the rejection of entire batches in recycling centres.
Misleading claims: The labelling and marketing of bioplastics can sometimes be misleading, causing consumers to believe they are making a greener choice when they might not be.
It is important to remember that all traditional plastic degrades, but it never actually disappears: it simply breaks down into smaller pieces, leaving behind microplastics. The use of bioplastics has gained significant attention in addressing the plastic problem, and whilst they are made from renewable resources and so reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, they are difficult to dispose of effectively so they are not an entirely dependable alternative yet. To maximize their positive impact, it's essential to consider factors like biodegradability, responsible sourcing and proper disposal methods, all while promoting a broader shift toward reducing plastic use and a circular economy.