Bioplastics: a scam or a solution to plastic pollution?
Plastic pollution is one of this century’s major issues impacting the environmental health of our planet. Plastic has become a human necessity. It is literally found anywhere we go. It piles up in the city streets; it drifts around in large trash vortexes in our oceans; it is a floating minefield for seabirds and marine life. The list is long!
With the rising amount of plastic being discarded in nature and in the oceans, the threat towards our eco system and food supplies increases rapidly.
According to UN Environmental Programme, UNEP, a staggering 6.5 million tonnes of plastic are being dumped alone in our oceans each year. A number that continues to rise. Of all the plastic manufactured in the world, almost 33% is made for one-time use only. It doesn’t take mush to imagine where this potentially ends up.
We have invited ourselves to a plastic party with a devastating outcome.
So what can be done to reduce this plastic nightmare we are facing? Can bioplastic be the solution to this massive plastic invasion on our planet? If it is done right, it can offer a piece to the puzzle.
But we must face it, it is a complex task to fulfil and here is why.
Bioplastic is a specific type of plastic derived from renewable biobased resources. The most common definition used when describing bioplastic arrives from the European Bioplastic Association. Here bioplastic is defined as being biobased or biodegradable. It can also be a combination of both as long as it is not non -biobased and non-biodegradable at the same time.
And this is where the problem arises.
Since the world of bioplastics has expanded rapidly though the last decades, so have the materials that can be classified as bioplastic.
With the definition being so broad and far reaching, it is basically up to the companies themselves to define how they portray bioplastic and to some extend what it contains.
In order to unfold this definition further, it is important to state that bioplastic can be non-biodegradable. Bioplastic can contain 0% biobased materials. It is also possible that bioplastic features 100% fossil based sources.
Confused? We thought so.
Simply put, bioplastic can be any combination of being non-biobased, partially biobased, fully biobased, non-biodegradable, biodegradable and compostable. It is important to make a clear distinction between these properties when considering the environmental impact since it covers the different functionalities and disposal possibilities of the end product.
When describing a product as being biobased, it refers to the materials origin. A biobased product can be wholly or partly derived from natural resources such as starch or sugar.
Biodegradability relates to the materials after use option. A biodegradable product breaks down into smaller compounds with the help from biological organisms producing carbon dioxide, water and biomass.
The term composting also describes the materials after use option. As with a biodegradable product, a compostable product breaks down into smaller compounds through the action of biological organisms. The difference is though, that a compostable product is subject to a variety of criteria being met such as environmental conditions, timeframe, quality of the produced compost etc.
There exist many examples of products that contribute to this underlining confusion and misperception of bioplastics.
A great example is the Coca Cola PlantBottle launched in 2009. The name itself suggests an eco friendly container but when you take a closer look at the combination of materials used, it provides a much different picture. Around 22.5% of the PET (polyethylene terephthalate) by weight has been replaced with plant-based material. Even though the PlantBottle is considered a bioplastic product consisting partly of plant-based materials, it still contains a vast amount of PET, 77.5% and it cannot biodegrade.
The same problem occurs with PLA (polylactic acid). This is thermoplastic polyester used when creating some types of bioplastic. Made from plant-based materials like corn, PLA has the ability to biodegrade. But if you think this is for composting in your back yard – think again. Bioplastics made from PLA can only biodegrade when certain conditions are met using an industrial composting facility.
What these examples demonstrate is a rising problem based on the semantics of bioplastic. Due to incorrect marketing and labelling bioplastics as being green or eco friendly, it sends out misleading signals to consumers who are likely to perceive products made from bioplastic as environmentally friendly. This results in consumers and perhaps even companies buying products they believe are more sustainable than they actually are. Ultimately, this leads to great confusion. We have to look past semantics, otherwise it will have us all fooled.
Therefore, instead of looking at the distinction between plastic and bioplastic, an expansion of the functional characteristics found on the polymer specifications sheet is needed. The family of bioplastic has to be recognized as being equally or perhaps even more diverse than conventional plastics.
The bottom line is not all bioplastics are created equally. First when we understand the diversity of bioplastic, it is possible to make the right decisions regarding the future of our planet’s well being.