Is Bioplastic Sustainable?
Updated: Oct 7, 2022
Plastic is problematic on so many levels. For example, the plastic waste problem is getting bigger and bigger each day. In addition, when plastic is being produced, many fossil resources are used, and the environment is being polluted. In order to tackle all these problems related to plastic, the most obvious solution is to stop using plastic in all instances, but that can not happen overnight and can be very expensive. The main problem with plastic is that it is very inexpensive to produce and can be used in so many applications all over the industry and in everyday life. It is very complicated and expensive to change that.
Accordingly, individuals and companies are coming up with various solutions to solve the problems related to plastic. Some people decided to stop using plastic altogether and go zero waste, and this is a remarkable example, but it is very challenging for everyone to go zero waste.
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Different producers are coming up with environmentally friendly single-use items to replace plastic ones. However, it is essential to mention that this only solves a part of the problem, not the whole.
As mentioned earlier, there are other solutions out there that have a positive impact on the environment. For example, among various ideas, some companies managed to produce bioplastic, which should primarily solve, in theory, the plastic waste problem. But can it really solve it? Or is it better that we all strive to ditch every single form of plastic? Read on to find out more.
What is bioplastic?
Traditional plastic is produced from materials made from raw petroleum and bioplastic is a form of plastic as well, but made from renewable resources. It is made from natural polymers from agricultural sources, cellulose or potato, and corn starch waste. The idea is that all plastic becomes bioplastic eventually, but is it really a better solution?
To begin with, one of the most significant issues with plastic is that it remains almost the same for hundreds and hundreds of years in our landfills and waters and oceans, harming all kinds of animals and other living species. Hence, we are looking for a solution that disintegrates over a reasonable amount of time, be it a matter of days, weeks, or sometimes months, but definitely not years and decades, even centuries which is the time needed for regular plastic to (partially ) decompose. And that the production of it does not have a harmful impact on the environment. So, what about bioplastic?
Is it biodegradable?
Before discussing whether something is degradable, the main terms must be clarified: degradable, biodegradable, and compostable.
All plastic is degradable, even traditional plastic, but just because it can be broken down into tiny fragments or powder does not mean the materials will ever return to nature. Some additives to traditional plastics make them degrade more quickly. Photodegradable plastic breaks down more readily in sunlight; oxo-degradable plastic disintegrates more quickly when exposed to heat and light.
Biodegradable plastic can be broken down completely into water, carbon dioxide, and compost by microorganisms under the right conditions. “Biodegradable” implies that the decomposition happens in weeks to months. Bioplastics that don't biodegrade that quickly are called “durable,” and some bioplastics made from biomass that cannot easily be broken down by microorganisms are considered non-biodegradable.
Compostable plastic will biodegrade in a compost site. Microorganisms break it down into carbon dioxide, water, inorganic compounds, and biomass at the same rate as other organic materials in the compost pile, leaving no toxic residue.
So, various kinds of bioplastic fall under multiple categories of degradable, biodegradable, and compostable. And to some extent, it is better for the environment than traditional plastic, but not all bioplastic, not all the time.
Pros and cons of bioplastic
Yes, the bioplastic reduces carbon footprint, saves energy when being produced, and does not involve the consumption of non-renewable raw materials. This means that bioplastic lowers the demand for fossil fuels and is biodegradable in some cases. Moreover, it reduces non-biodegradable waste that contaminates the environment.
On the other hand, the researchers found that bioplastics production resulted in more significant amounts of pollutants due to the fertilizers and pesticides when being grown. This applies to the chemical processing needed to turn organic material into plastic as well. Moreover, the bioplastics contributed more to ozone depletion than traditional plastics and required extensive land use. Some types of biodegradable plastic can require special conditions and industrial facilities, and it cannot be just placed into the compost bin, waiting for the best to happen. Not to mention that bioplastic is much more expensive than regular plastic, and often, many people choose the cheaper solution for many various reasons.
Accordingly, the production and use of bioplastic have both better and worse aspects than traditional plastic at the same time, and the only clear advantage is that it is sometimes biodegradable. So, yes, to some extent, is it better, but not enough to be used instead of other available materials.
Even though it has some advantages compared to traditional plastic, bioplastic still has a (negative) impact on the environment both when produced and discarded. So, in the end, it is still a form of plastic.
Therefore, if possible in any way, it is most certainly better to use packaging and items which can be used over and over (for starters, bring your cloth bag to the store), not single-use ones, whether they are produced out of traditional or bioplastic. Furthermore, do not use single-use items at all; the vast majority of them can be simply replaced by multi-use alternatives (and, in the end, not only will you be more environmentally friendly, but in the long run, you will save a lot of money). In this way, we can significantly reduce the amount of stuff we are sending to the landfills and which ends up in our waters and oceans and give the environment a chance to breathe more freely, not to mention that the pollution coming from the production of (bio)plastic will be significantly reduced.