Explained: Are Bioplastics Good For The Environment?

are bioplastics good for the environment

It’s taken a few too many decades to get to this point, but the unrivaled supremacy of plastic as our go-to packaging option is finally being challenged.

Could a different type of plastic – bioplastic – take the reins to the benefit of the environment?

Of course, it’s difficult to deny that plastic is still the most widely used packaging material across the world. Global plastic production is steadily increasing each year. 

However, it’s also true that greater awareness of plastic pollution consequences and the environmental cost of the plastic industry as a whole has contributed to the fight against plastic.  

Increased ecological awareness and greater consumer interest in eco-friendly living is on the rise. This has caused an increasing number of brands and retailers to start searching for more sustainable packaging options to get all the good of plastic (durability and affordability) without any of the bad (GHG emissions, chemical leaching, and non-biodegradability).

plastic bottle in the natural environment

Can bioplastics be the environmental answer?

Enter bioplastics: much like classic plastic in their appearance and usage, but considerably different when it comes to their impact on the planet.

In short, they are a type of plastic material made from natural and renewable sources. They are becoming more popular and there are now many uses for bioplastics in the consumer world.

If this sounds too good to be true, that’s exactly why we want to take a closer look at the world of bioplastics to answer the most common question on the subject: Are bioplastics good for the environment?

Let’s take it one step at a time and see what makes bioplastics different from the plastic we’ve come to know, how the material is being used, and what might be holding it back.

What is bioplastic made from?

Whether you’re dealing with PET plastic, PVC, polysytrene, or polyethylene (PE), you’ll always find two key ingredients creating the base structure for all polymers: Crude oil (petroleum) or natural gas.

Bioplastics are instead made from a variety of plant and biological materials, such as sugarcane, corn, or algae.

Just like traditional plastic, bioplastic comes in different acronyms. The two most common varieties are:

  • PLA
  • PHA  

PLA bioplastic

PLA stands for polylactic acid. 

It’s made by extracting the natural sugars found in edible plants (most commonly corn, sugarcane, and cassava) and converting them into a long-chain polymer with the help of citric acids. 

Once the starch is extracted from the whole plant, the process is not unlike what you’d see with traditional plastic.

The PLA materials we see the most today are generally used as food packaging or as the building material for biodegradable utensils. Compostable food bin liners are often made from PLA bioplastic.

PHA bioplastic

PHA stands for the near-impossible to pronounce polyhydroxyalkanoate.

PHA bioplastics are made from microorganisms and algae engineered to produce plastic from organic materials. 

During the process, these microbes are fed carbon in order to encourage the production of carbon reserves, which will then become PHA material. While also used as a single-plastic substitute, this type of bioplastic is generally used for medical devices and applications, such as sutures and bone plates.

Looking at the two different procedures side by side, it’s not surprising that PLA production is much cheaper and efficient than the time-consuming,  engineering-heavy PHA production. 

As a result, you’ll find that PLA bottles, trays, utensils, and textiles make for the most common type of bioplastics available on the market today. 

Advantages and disadvantages of bioplastics for the environment

Now that you know how these ingenious materials are made, let’s get to the crucial issue: Are bioplastics good for the environment?

In terms of their environmental advantages, bioplastics score quite high in a number of ways.

They are both compostable and degradable, they’re safe, and much less resource-intensive and polluting to produce.

While these features make for the main draw of bioplastics, there are also considerable disadvantages that we shouldn’t ignore. For example, the possibility of these materials contaminating the plastic recycling system and the fact that bioplastics won’t degrade in the ocean.

So, let’s take a closer look at how bioplastic materials impact the environment.

compostable shopping bag made from bioplatics
Compostable shopping bags such as this Coop bag are made from bioplastics

Advantages of bioplastics

Here are some of the advantages of using bioplastic material.

1. Bioplastics are made from renewable & sustainable materials

Bioplastics are made from naturally occurring polymers. This means  that the production process won’t have the same carbon footprint as petroleum and gas-based plastic, which is responsible for millions of CO2 emissions each year.

All in all, bioplastic production saves energy and produces less greenhouse gas emissions compared to traditional plastic manufacturing.

2. Bioplastics are non-toxic

Bioplastics are also considered safer than traditional plastic, as they don’t leach any chemicals into the products they are used for packaging.

These plastic materials don’t require BPA or any other potentially toxic substances, so as they decompose, they won’t be harming the environment as much as PET or PVC plastic does.

3. Bioplastics are recyclable, compostable, and degradable

Finally, bioplastics are not only recyclable but also degradable and compostable. A PLA container, for example, will break down fully in as little as three months after being disposed of in an industrial composter. 

This is arguably the biggest environmental pro of bioplastics, as plastic pollution is one of the worst challenges facing our planet today. 

Disadvantages of bioplastics

Despite all the positives, there are a number of negative associations from using using bioplastics.

1. Bioplastics are expensive to produce

Bioplastics cost as much as two to three times more to produce than PE or PET plastics. 

With cost key, this leads to lower production rates and, in turn, much higher price tags for retailers looking to start using degradable plastics for their products. 

2. Bioplastics won’t help save the ocean

The most common types of bioplastics used today are not able to decompose in ocean water. 

Any bioplastic materials that end up in our oceans will either float and accumulate or create microplastics — just as traditional plastic does. 

So, unfortunately, using bioplastic products instead of PE and PET won’t help our growing ocean pollution and microplastics crisis.

3. Bioplastics often still end up in the landfill

Finally, the biggest issue with bioplastics today is that the process to recycle and industrial facilities needed to compost them is not widely used and available. This is particularly true for developing countries.

The lack of facilities results in large quantities of bioplastic products ending up in the landfill or being incinerated. If your local waste management facility can’t follow the proper disposal procedure, then there’s really little difference between choosing bioplastics or non-compostable plastic.

bioplastic cutlery

Are bioplastics really better for the environment than other plastic?

So, are bioplastics better for the environment? 

The answer is a little more complicated than just yes or no, so we’ll have to compare PLA and PHA plastics to the most common non-compostable plastics instead.

Even when considering disadvantages like higher production costs and issues in disposal, bioplastics are much better for the environment compared to traditional petroleum and gas-based plastics.

Bioplastics are made from renewable materials, as well as using a much less resource and energy-intensive process for production, making for a more carbon-neutral option all around. On top of that, these plastics are 100% degradable when disposed of properly, taking between three and six months to fully break down, a far cry from the centuries needed for plastic bottles!

But considering that bioplastics won’t decompose in the ocean without leaving a trace and that the materials are still too new to get the proper disposal procedure they need to shine, they should not be considered your next go-to product for a more sustainable life.

There’s also the question of growing the plants and organic material that are needed to produce bioplastics. Should this land be used for food production? Maybe it should be used for rewilding or growing new woodland or agroforestry systems to absorb CO2 from the atmosphere?

Avoiding all plastic products and reusing the plastic that you can’t help but buy is always going to be the number one choice for a kinder, eco-friendly living. 

But we would certainly keep an eye on what scientists and green researchers are doing when it comes to making bioplastics work better at every stage of their life cycle. You can take a closer look at what bioplastics are used for in this blog.

Once production costs come down and recycling/ composting facilities become more widely available, who knows how bioplastics could help the environment in the future.

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