Are bioplastics better for the environment than conventional plastics?

Have you ever stood in front of a supermarket shelf and wondered if you should buy that product made from bioplastics rather than the conventional kind? Many people assume all bioplastics are made from plants and can break down completely in the environment. But that’s not the case. The term “bioplastics” is actually used for two separate things: bio-based plastics (plastics made at least partly from biological matter) and biodegradable plastics (plastics that can be completely broken down by microbes in a reasonable timeframe, given specific conditions). Not all bio-based plastics are biodegradable, and not all biodegradable plastics are bio-based. And even biodegradable plastics might not biodegrade in every environment. Sounds confusing? It certainly is. Subscribe to feed “There are a lot of bioplastics or materials that are called bioplastics that are not biodegradable,” says Constance Ißbrücker, head of environmental affairs at the industry association European Bioplastics. Subscribe to feed For some plastics, the same polymer chains can be made from renewable sources. The resulting bioplastics are chemically identical to their fossil counterparts. PET, for example — short for polyethylene terephthalate, which is the stuff most bottles are made of — can be synthesized from fossil fuel products or plants like sugarcane. The resulting material is the exact same. Such non-biodegradable bioplastics behave in the environment just like conventional plastic and persist for an unknown but long amount of time. Not only that, but none of the standards for plastics labeled as biodegradable or compostable today makes them suitable for disposal in the open environment. Given that, can bioplastics play a role in tackling environmental problems? Or are they merely greenwashing? The most accurate answer is, it depends. PLA: Conditionally Compostable Take polylactic acid (PLA), for example. This bioplastic is used to make shopping bags, transparent cups, 3-D printing material and other products. Because it can be derived from plant material like corn sugar, potato or sugarcane, it can reduce the demand for fossil fuels used to make conventional plastics. PLA is recyclable, biodegradable and compostable. But that doesn’t mean the ocean — or any other natural environment — can … Continue reading Are bioplastics better for the environment than conventional plastics?