Are Bioplastics Eco-Friendly and Sustainable?
Bioplastics are often misunderstood because of the name. Bio-based are produced from renewable biomass sources such as vegetable oils, starches, and recycled food wastes. However, many of them are not biodegradable and most of them are not home compostable. Also, not all biodegradable plastics are bio-based.
As we know fossil fuel resources are finite and will on day run out, bioplastics are becoming more in demand. But not all bioplastics are the eco-friendly and sustainable alternatives to conventional plastic materials.
As a consumer, we need to pay attention to the type of plastic and dispose the material accordingly. Let’s look at the common bioplastics.
PLA is one of the most widely used material for cups and food packaging and promoted as “biodegradable”. It is however, biodegradable only in a industrial facility environment. It will take about 500 years to degrade in the landfill or the ocean. The question is “PLA is actually good for our environment and sustainable while it is more expensive than other plastics to produce?”
PHA is a little more complicating. It will degrade in a tropical ocean environment in 1-2 months, but in colder environments, it will hardly get degraded.
PBAT has limitation, suitable for only soft packaging. But it is home compostable and leave no toxic residues. It is made from fossil fuels.
Bio-based PET, PE
These can be made of various feedstocks including sugar cane, beet, and wheat grain. They are chemically identical as conventional plastic, PET and PE and are recyclable at the same facility.
Now, the question is “will switching to bioplastics from conventional plastics solve the environmental issues?” While bioplastics are generally considered to be more eco-friendly than conventional plastics, a 2010 study from the University of Pittsburgh found that wasn’t necessarily true when the materials’ life cycles were taken into consideration. The researchers determined that bioplastics production resulted in greater amounts of pollutants, due to the fertilizers and pesticides used in growing the crops and the chemical processing needed to turn organic material into plastic. Bioplastics also contributed more to ozone depletion than the traditional plastics and required extensive land use.