• Tamsin

5 Ugly Truths Bioplastics Can’t Hide

You and I both know how awful plastics are. They pollute our environment, kill our wildlife and affect our health. But no matter how hard we try, plastic seems to always be there - it’s in the food packaging, in our clothes and according to the latest research in our table salt?! So I can understand why researchers and companies are trying to find better alternatives to traditional plastic.

One of these is bioplastic - plastic made from renewable biomass sources like vegetable oils, cornstarch and sawdust. Sounds like the answer to all our problems right? Well I don’t mean to rain on your parade, but bioplastics are not as awesome as we’re made to believe.

Plastic cutlery littering a dark blue background. In the middle, straws spell out "STOP".

1. They're confusing

First of all, the term ‘bioplastic’ is actually largely misunderstood and a source of constant confusion. According to European Bioplastics, the term encompasses 2 distinct concepts:

  • Biobased plastics are plastics that are partly or fully made from biological and renewable resources such as grains and vegetable oils.

  • Biodegradable plastics, on the other hand, are plastics that degrade by naturally-occurring micro-organisms under specific conditions.

While these two definitions are not mutually exclusive, they do raise a number of issues that challenge their sustainability promise.

2. They’re still plastic

Because we’re told that bioplastics are made from plants or natural oils, we’re somehow under the impression that they’re somehow more “natural” than their fossil-fuel counterparts. But the truth is that the end product has undergone so much processing and refining that it has nothing to do with plants anymore. The chemical structure of bioplastics is identical to normal plastics. PET bioplastic is still PET. So really the only difference lies in the origins of the plastic, not so much in the end product.

And if we were playing devil’s advocate, fossil fuels are the result of plant decomposition over million of years. So if we follow the same logic, does that make petroleum-derived plastic biobased too?

Yeah, I didn't think so.

So why all the hype around bioplastics?

3. They don’t degrade

Because we have created identical counterparts to fossil fuel plastics, Bio-PET, Bio-PE and other bioplastics are unfortunately not biodegradable.

The only bioplastics that are currently biodegradable and available for commercial use are PLA, PHA and cellulose-based plastics as well as lignin-based polymer composites. But even these plastics require specific conditions to degrade. They require industrial composting to fully break down.

And because we are awful at disposing of materials and things in the proper way, bioplastics will face a similar fate to petroleum-based plastics. In other words, this so-called “better” plastic is still going to end up in the environment. And in these non-controlled environments, bioplastics degrade in a very similar fashion to normal plastics - it takes decades and creates microplastics. Not exactly the happy ending we had in mind!?

4. They are resource-intensive

It is true that bioplastics come from renewable resources. And they have the added benefit of supporting a rural, agrarian economy meaning that any country or region can support the bioplastic industry compared to a select few for oil.

But we have to address the elephant in the room. Using biomass competes with food and feed applications. So we have to ask ourselves how much crop will be grown for bioplastic purposes - does this mean that we’ll divert food away from our plates and into a plastic refinery? Or that we’ll have to generate more crop yields to meet demand?

I dislike the term ‘renewable’ for crops and biomass for the simple reason that we are limited by the amount of fields and resources that crops use up. While we can technically grow as much sugarcane as we want, we don’t have infinite stores of water or land to currently meet our society’s needs for plastics. Forecasts do estimate that land use will remain stable despite a growing market. But I have a hard time imagining that scaling bioplastic production to match the petroleum-based plastic industry will have little to no impact on land and resource use. I mean we produce 368 million metric tonnes of plastic every single year. There is no way to realistically produce that much bioplastic. And on top of that, we're already fighting to reduce the size of agriculture and livestock, should we really be pushing for an industry that relies on the same resources as cows?

5. They're single-use

What bioplastics are really here to do is keep our supply of plastic coming when our stocks of fossil fuels finally dry up. Popular applications of bioplastics are in cutlery, takeaway coffee cups and water bottles. So we're still faced with the same problem: we use it once and throw it away. How is this the answer to our consumption and waste problem?

Not only does this maintain a constant stream of waste to deal with, but it also displaces the pressure from fossil fuels to biomass. In the end, we're still operating under a linear economy model where resources are exploited, transformed and manufactures into goods, and then discarded. Isn't our energy better spent coming up with solutions that would last longer?

This is not to say that bioplastics don’t have a place in our society, but that we have to be mindful about plastic usage overall - be it biomass- or fossil fuel-derived. So instead of trying to replace plastic, we should instead focus on reducing our use of plastic where unnecessary (I mean, who came up with the brilliant idea of packaging single cucumbers?!) and designing materials to be reused and recycled indefinitely.

The bioplastics people have got it all wrong. It’s not about replacing one single-use material with another. It’s about creating new materials that can last a lifetime. What do you think?

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