What Are Bioplastics & Why You Should Avoid Them

What you need to know about plant-based plastics

Are any bioplastics eco-friendly? Are bioplastics truly biodegradable? What are they made out of? Are they compostable? Discover some of the key facts about single-use plant-based plastics, so that you can avoid them!

Corporations have been pressured for years to find an alternative to single-use plastics, and many companies are touting bioplastics as the answer to plastic pollution. You’ve probably seen a few examples of bioplastics before– biodegradable food waste bags and “eco-friendly” coffee cups both contain bioplastics. 

However, the notion that bottles and packaging made of plant-based materials can be discarded and broken down without consequences is, unfortunately, incorrect.

So What Are Bioplastics Made Of?

The term “bioplastics” is actually really confusing, but the definition of bioplastic is a type of plastic made from biomass: so animals, plants and microorganisms. Despite being made of natural resources like corn or sugarcane, bioplastics have very remarkably similar properties to plastics made from fossil fuels.

Here’s where it gets complicated: many types of bioplastics are not biodegradable, yet some plastics that are fully petroleum-based are biodegradable.

On top of that, some bioplastics will only biodegrade at an industrial waste site, some can only be recycled, whilst many are designed to simply break down into potentially harmful microplastics.

What Are Bioplastics & Why You Should Avoid Them
An example of bioplastic packaging

How Is Bioplastic Different To Regular Plastic?

If you were wondering, “ isn’t petroleum basically just fossilised biomass? Therefore regular plastic could count as a bioplastic” you would be right. The only distinction between bioplastics and regular oil-based is that the latter is made from fossilised resources. So you could argue even the name bioplastic is a form of greenwashing.

So Are Bioplastics Environmentally Friendly?

The short answer is no. As we’ve discovered, bioplastics might be made from more renewable sources unlike oil-based plastic, and some types may be able to biodegrade in an industrial environment. This makes them preferable to traditional oil-based plastic, but they are not an environmentally-friendly solution.

PET, the type of plastic used to make plastic bottles, is able to be made as a bioplastic, and many companies have switched to this method. However, whether it was made using plants, or from oil, chemically the PET would be exactly the same. This means it has the same advantages, and the same disadvantages.

What Are Bioplastics & Why You Should Avoid Them Infographic
Source: Pick Ethical

Can Bioplastics Be Composted At Home?

The only approved method to compost bioplastics is an industrial composting facility that meets strict requirements. These facilities are also few and far between and are not typically located near residential areas. As a result, most bioplastics end up in a landfill because they are put in a general waste bin.

Unfortunately there are few regulations about how companies can market the use of bioplastics in their products, which is why it is so misleading for consumers. One great example is with the millions of tea drinkers in the UK. Most teabags in the UK are made of plastic and many tea brands looking to promote their sustainability commitments used a type of bioplastic called polylactic acid (PLA) to replace the original plastic design.

The tea brands market their products as being made of natural materials and biodegradable, causing many consumers to believe they are suitable for home composting.

However, PLA can only biodegrade under industrial composting conditions, and research has shown very few tea brands actually use plastic-free and compostable materials in their products.

Are Any Bioplastics Eco-Friendly?

The bioplastics industry is still young and is rapidly evolving. Researchers are working to develop more sustainable bioplastics from non-food crops such as hemp and seaweed. However the difficulty, like with the other types of bioplastic, is knowing how long it takes for the material to break down, and whether it is harmful even when it does.

Even if bioplastics can be recycled, they do not reduce the need for virgin plastics. Producing recycled plastics requires significant amounts of energy. Recycling is best used as a way to extend the life of virgin plastics and reduce the amount of new plastic that needs to be made.

Some bioplastics can be recycled along with regular plastics, but they must be separated. Ideally, bioplastics should be collected in a separate bin from regular plastics. 

Why Bioplastics Are Still Bad News

The plants used to create bioplastics are often cultivated or harvested using unsustainable practices. These plants are often grown in tropical regions where large plantations have replaced forests. 

For example, one of the most common feedstocks for bioplastics is corn. Brazil is one of the largest corn cultivators in the world and coincidentally is also responsible for setting new records of deforestation year on year.

On top of that, studies are finding that the agribusinesses in Brazil are now suffering a drop in production because of climate changes brought about by clearing grassland for corn crops.

As the bioplastics industry grows, these tropical regions will face significant challenges in meeting the demand for their feedstocks.

The Bottom line

The overall lesson here is that the “bio” in bioplastics does not mean biodegradable. If you’re interested in using bioplastics, make sure you’re buying products that are designed to break down quickly and easily without leaving harmful by-products.

Bioplastics are a false solution that will not reduce the amount of virgin plastic used in the long term. These bioplastics could even make the problem worse if they end up causing agricultural plantations to be established in regions where forests are currently growing. 

However, there are significant hurdles to overcome before bioplastics can be seen as eco-friendly and sustainable. The first of which is the fact that bioplastics are not necessarily biodegradable.

The second problem is that some bioplastics still have the same disadvantages as petroleum-based plastics.

Bioplastics are a promising alternative to conventional plastics, but there is a long way to call them a suitable alternative.

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Omar is passionate about environmentalism, hiking with his dog, and content writing. He writes for his website, Pick Ethical, to provide education on environmental awareness and inspire eco-friendly alternatives to people’s daily habits.

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