Plastic pollution is one of the biggest environmental problems worldwide. That’s why many people avoid conventional plastics and prefer other alternatives, such as bio-based plastics. But is bioplastic truly biodegradable or is it another form of greenwashing?
Bioplastics seem like an eco-friendly option for both consumers and manufacturers. However, this term can cause confusion and some dishonest companies take advantage of it to deceive their customers!
Not sure if you should use this material? Keep reading to learn the actual definition of bioplastics and find out if they’re biodegradable, sustainable, or bad for the environment!
What Is Bioplastic?
As you might already know, conventional plastics are made from petroleum. In the case of bioplastics, the prefix “bio” refers to the materials these plastics are made from. Unlike regular plastics, bioplastics are made (entirely or in part) from biological materials.
You could think bio-based plastics wouldn’t be as good as regular plastics, but the truth is that they look, feel, and behave just like them. Some common examples of bio-based plastics are the ones made from corn starch, sugar cane, and even food waste!
Plastics made from renewable sources sound like the perfect solution to plastic pollution, don’t you think? Unfortunately, it is not that simple.
What Can Bioplastics Be Used For?
Since regular plastics are losing popularity, companies are looking for other materials to use. For that reason, many of them are using bio-based plastics for different products, from grocery bags to sutures.
PLA is the most popular bio-based plastic out there and it’s made from polylactic acids found in plants like corn. This type of bioplastic is a great material for food packaging, bottles, and utensils.
They can also be made from polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs) engineered from microorganisms. These plastics are useful for medical applications such as sutures and cardiovascular patches.
Although they’re both versatile and bio-based, they still have some disadvantages.
Are All Bio-based Plastics Completely Biodegradable?
Now that you know bioplastics are made from biological materials, you’re probably assuming that all of them are biodegradable as well.
But here’s the shocking part about bioplastics: “bio-based” doesn’t necessarily mean “biodegradable”.
Let’s remember that this term describes how these plastics are made, not how long they last in the environment. In other words, not all bio-based plastics are biodegradable. And when they’re, they might not break down in every environment!
In short, only some bioplastics will biodegrade within a few months, but only under specific conditions. So, they could stay in the environment for years, sounds familiar?
Are Bioplastics Good for the Environment?
Many products use a prefix like “bio” or “eco” to attract and deceive conscious consumers. Bio-based plastics, for example, have some advantages over regular plastics. That said, it’s important to see the whole picture:
- If discarded properly, biodegradable plastics could reduce plastic waste.
- They reduce greenhouse gas emissions from plastic production.
- Unlike regular plastics, they’re made from renewable sources.
- They reduce the dependency on fossil fuels.
- When biodegradable plastics end up in landfills, they generate methane. This is a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change!
- Biodegradable plastics need intense heat to biodegrade. So, most of them will only biodegrade in industrial composting facilities. If bioplastics make their way into the environment, they won’t degrade on their own. As a result, they will affect wildlife and pollute nature just like regular plastics do!
- Some people worry about where and how bio-based plastics are produced. They think bioplastics could promote large-scale agriculture, lead to water shortages, desertification, and biodiversity loss.
Are biodegradable plastics a good alternative to plastics? Is it possible to solve the disadvantages of bio-based plastics? Could they replace conventional plastics once and for all? Let’s mention some sustainability concerns first:
Some bioplastics are made from crops that could feed people. If bio-based plastics gain popularity, they could divert land away from growing food and compromise food security!
So, companies must focus on growing crops sustainably and find ways to make bioplastics out of food waste!
Even though some bio-based plastics can be recycled through mechanical recycling, they could contaminate petroleum-based plastics that are chemically recycled. So, before putting them in the recycling bin, make sure your recycling centre accepts them. Otherwise, the other recyclables could end up in landfills!
Industrial Composting Facilities
Most biodegradable plastics will only break down if they’re composted at very high temperatures in an industrial composter. That said, many places don’t have those infrastructures, so biodegradable plastics would do more harm than good!
One of the biggest concerns about bio-based plastics is that they don’t biodegrade easily in the environment. Unfortunately, many people believe biodegradable plastics will biodegrade in the environment as fruit peels do.
This could lead to even more people littering plastics. But the truth is that they will only act as regular plastics polluting the environment!
Should You Be Using Bioplastic Products?
Keep in mind that using single-use bioplastics doesn’t change the throwaway culture. Like other single-use materials, discarding these products means using resources that will end up as waste.
It doesn’t matter if a single-use item is made of paper or bioplastic, reusable alternatives will always be the best eco-friendly option! So, instead of choosing a bio-based plastic bag at the supermarket, bring your reusable bag!
Before choosing bio-based plastics over regular plastics, find out what disposal options are in your area. Remember that biodegradable plastics could be even more problematic to discard than traditional plastics!
When Should You Choose Bioplastics?
- When they’re certified for home-composting and you will compost them.
- When they’re certified for industrial composting and you can send them to industrial composting facilities.
- If bioplastics can be recycled in your area. These bio-based plastics shouldn’t have any type of compostable or biodegradable logo. Otherwise, they could contaminate other recyclables.
In conclusion, not all bioplastics are biodegradable. And biodegradable plastics won’t degrade as you thought. Although they generate fewer greenhouse emissions than conventional plastics, they can cause some environmental problems as well.