What are Bioplastics? Are they the solution?

Perhaps you have heard or read about them, but if not, then let us learn a little about what they really are and how they are part of the solution to help reduce plastic pollution.

Bioplastics come from vegetable products such as soybean oil, corn, sugar cane or potatoes, unlike conventional plastic which we have always known that is produced from oil-petroleum and its derivatives. It is important to bear in mind that not all biodegradable plastics can be converted to compost and vice versa. Only those that comply with certain regulations and procedures such as for example, being biodegradable within six months or less without contaminating the subsoil with toxins, can be defined as bioplastics.

Although the fact that bioplastics are biodegradable is an advantage, most of them need industrial composting facilities at high temperatures to decompose and very few places in the world possess the required infrastructure to handle them. This means that bioplastics often end up in landfills where, when deprived of oxygen release methane, a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming.

When bioplastics are not disposed of correctly, they can contaminate batches of recycled plastic and damage the recycling plant. If the bioplastic contaminates the recycled PET (link to Let’s talk about recycling), for example, the entire lot could be rejected and end up in a landfill. That is why separate recycling streams are necessary to enable the separation of bioplastics from the normal plastics.

The land required for bioplastics competes with food production because the crops that produce bioplastics are also required for the food production that feeds people. It is anticipated that to meet the growing global demand for bioplastics, by 2019, an area larger than Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark combined will be needed to be able to grow the required amount. In addition, the fuel used to run agricultural machinery also produces greenhouse gas emissions.

Bioplastics are also relatively expensive. PLA or polylactic acid ( the raw material extracted from certain vegetables to produce some bioplastics), can be 20 to 50 percent more expensive than similar materials, due to the difficult process used to convert corn or sugar cane into the material required to make  PLA. However, prices are dropping as researchers and companies develop more efficient and environmentally friendly strategies to produce bioplastics.

The debate on the replacement of conventional plastics by bioplastics overshadows the real problem: the urgent need to reduce all use of plastics and in particular, plastics that are excessive, unnecessary and single-use types. Our culture of excessive usage and disposal is linked to a linear economy of purchase – use – disposal will not be modified by relying only on technological solutions. Instead, we need changes in behaviour and production and that prevention and reuse be the priorities of everyone. In fact, bioplastics should play a positive role in the transition to a truly circular economy but only if its development is based on consuming within the limits of the planet, ethical and local sources, resource efficiency, waste prevention, reuse and recycling.

Bioplastics are not the magical solution to solve the problem of plastic pollution and its excessive consumption; they even create new challenges and problems. Bioplastics can and should play a positive role, but governments, industries and citizens must remain focused on the need to reduce all the use of plastic and waste prevention.