Bioplastics; Can They Solve The Plastic Pollution Problem?

Kathryn Manktelow

Bioplastics come in many forms but how environmentally friendly they are is debatable. If you’re looking to source more sustainable and environmentally friendly products for your business - for example plastic food packaging - bioplastics might not be the answer.

Bioplastics come in many forms but how environmentally friendly they are is debatable. If you’re looking to source more sustainable and environmentally friendly products for your business – for example plastic food packaging – bioplastics might not be the answer.

Many companies would like to do more to reduce the amount of plastic they use in their products. In this blog post I break down the facts about Bioplastics so you can fully understand whether they provide a solution that is suitable for your business.

If you want further help with your planning, book a Plastic Free Consultation with Chapelton. We can help you audit and plan a more environmentally friendly packaging strategy for your products and business.

What does Bio mean?

When the word Bio is added to any word it gives the idea that it is good for the environment or the user. It conjures up images of being environmentally friendly and ecologically safe. Is that the case when it comes to Bioplastics? Are they as environmentally friendly and ecologically safe as we assume they are? Or are we being mislead by that little 3 letter word ‘bio’?

Most of us are aware of the problem of plastic pollution. Since the 1950s the world has produced over 9 billion tonnes of plastic. 165 million tonnes of it has made its way in to our oceans so far, with around 9 million tonnes per year getting into our waterways on average. With only around 9% of this plastic waste being recycling it leaves extraordinary amounts sitting in landfill, and worse, our seas.

How Biodegradable are Bioplastics?

Bioplastics are plastics derived from renewable biomass sources, such as vegetable fats and oilscorn starchstrawwoodchipsfood waste, etc. Bioplastic can be made from agricultural by-products and also from used plastic bottles and other containers using microorganisms.

There is a lot of confusion when it comes to Bioplastics and whether they are the answer to our plastic woes. Are they any better for the environment?

Let’s break down come of the common terms used:

Degradable: All plastics are degradable, even fossil fuel based products. Degradable simply means it will break down over time, into small fragments or powders. This doesn’t mean it is good for the environment or that it will ever return to nature. Microplastics are degraded plastic products.

Biodegradable: Biodegradable plastics can be broken down completely by microorganisms under the right conditions. These plastics are broken down into water, compost and carbon dioxide. The assumption is that this process happens within a short space of time. In reality the process can be very long and, if not subjected to the right conditions (heat, moisture, bacteria etc), it may never biodegrade.

Compostable: Compostable plastic will break down in a compost environment, it is broken down my microorganisms in the same way and at the same rate as food & garden waste. It leaves no toxic residue and does not release carbon dioxide.

Types of Bioplastics

Bioplastics are used worldwide in disposable items such as packaging, bottles, straws and bags. They are also used in items such as 3D printing, car insulation and medical implants.

These are the two main types of Bioplastics:

PLA (Polyactic Acid) is usually made from the sugars found in corn starch or sugarcane. It is biodegradable, carbon neutral and edible. The starch is separated from the raw material in a series of processes that include ingredients such a sulphur dioxide which breaks the material down to its parts. The starch is made up of long chains or carbon molecules, like the carbon chains in plastics from fossil fuels. Citric acids are mixed in to form a long chain polymer which are the building blocks for plastic. PLA looks and behaves in the same way as polyethylene (used in plastic films, packaging and bottles)

PHA (Polyhydroxyalkanoate) is made by Microorganisms, some of which are genetically engineered that produce plastic from organic materials. The microorganisms are starved of nutrients such as oxygen and nitrogen and given high levels of carbon. PHA is produced as carbon stores in granular forms. Companies then harvest these granules which have a similar chemical structure to traditional plastics. The material is biodegradable and safe for human contact. It is often used in medical products such as slings, bone plates and skin substitutes.

 

Bioplastic production side effects

Bioplastics are generally considered to be more eco-friendly than traditional fossil fuel based plastics. However, a 2010 study at the University of Pittsburgh found that this wasn’t always the case.

The life cycles of the materials were taken into account, and it shed a different light on the view of microplastics and their real environmental impact.

The study compared seven traditional plastics, four bioplastics and one made from both fossil fuel and renewable resources. The researchers discovered that the production of bioplastics resulted in higher amounts of pollutants than its fossil fuel counterparts. These higher levels are due to the fertilisers and pesticides used to grow the crops, along with the chemicals used to turn organic material into plastics.

It was discovered that the bioplastics contributed much more to the depletion of the ozone layer than traditional plastics and require extensive land use to produce.

B-PET the hybrid plastic was found to have the biggest potential when it comes to toxic effects on our ecosystems. It has the most carcinogens and was scored as the worst option as it combined the negative impacts of chemical processing and agriculture.

However, greenhouse gas emissions for bioplastics are much lower over their lifetime than traditional plastics. They also absorb the same amount of carbon dioxide when they break down as they did whilst growing, therefore the there is no net increase in carbon dioxide, it’s offset.

Bioplastics and the process of biodegrading

Although bioplastics are biodegradable, which is a huge advantage, it is not as simple as you think. Bioplastics actually have very specific needs in order to biodegrade, they require high temperature industrial composting facilities to do so. They will not biodegrade in a home facility. These composting plants are rare and often the plastic ends up in landfill. It is in landfills, where deprived of oxygen that they start to produce methane gas, this gas is 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide and adversely effects the ozone layer.

The land required to grow the material competes with the food production industry. Precious space is being used and precious food sources being used to produce plastic rather than feed people.

Could Bioplastics reduce plastic pollution?

As evidenced in this blog post, the answer is sadly no they probably can’t, but they are getting us there. The issue of plastic pollution has had a big push in the last year and more people than ever are thinking about it. Just like with any new material we will find ways to make them more sustainable and environmentally friendly. I have every faith that one day we will have a biodegradable material that replaces most of our plastics. This will however take time, there will be some trial and error.

Bioplastics certainly have their place, and if they are collected and recycled correctly the benefits could be huge. However if like much of our other plastics they end up in landfill their biodegradability is irrelevant and pointless.

Are bioplastics the silver bullet? Not just yet.

In the meantime there are recyclable, biodegradable and compostable alternatives that can help you reduce the amount of plastic your company uses in its products. To explore these in more detail and to see whether they can help your company become more environmentally friendly, book a Plastic Free Consultation with Chapelton today.

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