Are ‘Plant-Based’ Bioplastics Environmentally-Friendly?

Image credit: Waldemar Brandt / Unsplash

In our plastic-dominated world, a ‘plant-based’ bioplastic option sounds like a dream come true. So, are bioplastics the answer to all our plastic-derived problems? Or, are they just as damaging as petroleum-based plastics?

Contents:

  • What are ‘plant-based’ bioplastics?
  • Are bioplastics biodegradable or compostable?
  • What they DON’T tell you about bioplastics…
  • But — in our plastic-dominated world, manufacturing less plastic is ALWAYS a good thing…
  • So, are bioplastics environmentally-friendly?

What are ‘plant-based’ bioplastics?

First thing’s first — not all bioplastic is created equally! Bioplastics are typically made from biological material (plants such as corn, sugarcane, or cellulose) instead of petroleum. Some ‘bio-based’ plastics are made from a mix of renewable and non-renewable sources (basically, plants and petroleum) which you can recognise by labels such as 50% plant based.

All types of plastic, including bioplastics, are long polymer chains of tightly-bound molecules. This molecular structure gives bioplastics their strength, durability, and flexibility. Essentially, bioplastics behave the same way as regular plastic — but they’re made from plant-based sources instead of fossil fuels. 

Image credit: John Cameron / Unsplash

Are bioplastics biodegradable or compostable?

So, what’s the issue with bioplastics? Well, contrary to popular belief, not all bioplastics are biodegradable or compostable! Here’s a quick reminder about the difference between the two terms:

Biodegradable: Depending on the surrounding environmental conditions, bacteria and fungi will break the material down into organic matter (water, carbon dioxide, compost). The entire process could take years, decades or even centuries (and leave behind toxic residue). 

Compostable: Given the right elements (heat, moisture, oxygen), the material will break down into an organic resource called humus (compost), which can be used as a nutrient-rich soil or fertiliser. Depending on whether the material is composted at home or in an industrial/commercial facility, the entire process could take anywhere between 4 weeks and 12 months.

Image Credit: New Zealand Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment

Okay, so you’ve got your hands on a bioplastic cup. How do you dispose of it? Well, in most cases, bioplastic must be subjected to extreme heat to allow the microbes to break the material down. This can only be achieved in industrial/commercial composting facilities. 

This is why many events, businesses, universities, schools and councils have incorporated food organics and garden organics (FOGO) bins into their waste management system. In these bins, you can typically dispose of your food scraps, garden waste, compostable bin liners, and compostable food packaging (whether it’s made from cardboard, cornstarch or bioplastic). The contents will be transported to a commercial composting facility, like Jeffries — located here in our home town of Adelaide! 

Without the controlled temperature that can only be achieved in industrial composting facilities, the bioplastics won’t degrade in a meaningful timeframe. If the bioplastic product ends up in a marine environment, it will break down into microplastics and pose a massive threat to wildlife — just like regular plastic! Unfortunately, if you can’t locate a bin that accepts compostable packaging, you’ll need to put it in a general waste bin.

Oops … certified compostable bioplastic coffee cups and lids go in in the FOGO bin. Where compostable FOGO bins are not available they go in to landfill, not recycling. Image credit: Jamie Stott / Ecolateral.

What they DON’T tell you about bioplastics…

To successfully integrate bioplastics into everyday life, we need two crucial elements:

  1. Consumer know-how (educating consumers about bioplastic disposal methods)
  2. Proper avenues to dispose of bioplastic products (industrial composting facilities). 

That’s it! So, what’s the problem? Currently, neither of these elements are prominent or widespread enough to support the large-scale adoption of bioplastics. At this point, bioplastics can’t be properly recycled in Australian waste facilities, so you’re left with two options: put it in your red bin (general waste) or put it in your green bin (organic waste), if your local council accepts AS4736 compostable products. 

Without consumer know-how and the right infrastructure in the right places, bioplastics are not inherently “better” for the environment. With so many different location-specific certifications and labels these days, many of us don’t have the time or motivation to research the nitty-gritty details of each product — or how to dispose of them. In fact, a recent study found that 90% of subjects mistakenly disposed of their bioplastic cup in their general waste bin.

Without consumer know-how and the right infrastructure in the right places, bioplastics are not inherently “better” for the environment

But — in our plastic-dominated world, manufacturing less plastic is ALWAYS a good thing…

For us, we always want to look at the glass half full — this means being able to appreciate the opportunities and benefits associated with bioplastics! Globally, plastic consumption has quadrupled over the past 30 years; accounting for 3.4% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Only 9% of this plastic waste is recycled. 

The good news is that the carbon emissions associated with manufacturing polylactic acid bioplastic (PLA) are 80% lower than that of traditional plastic. Another concern for many people is the amount of land required to grow the biomass to make bioplastics. But, in reality, bioplastic production represents around 0.01% of global agricultural area (around 5 billion hectares). 

Sustainable packaging companies, like BioPak, use PLA bioplastic to create single-use bowls, cups, containers, and cutlery. BioPak’s PLA bioplastic packaging is certified compostable to AS4736 or EN13432; the Australian and European industrial compostability standards. This means that the bioplastic will break down into compost within 12 weeks if placed in an industrial composting facility. 

Through their composting networks in Australia, New Zealand and the UK, Compost Connect, BioPak is helping foodservice businesses (bars, cafes, restaurants) to compost their food scraps and compostable packaging by connecting them with industrial composters. Doing so allows staff and customers to confidently dispose of their compostable bioplastics in the right bin, where it will be transformed into nutrient-rich compost! 

Image credit: Renew

So, are bioplastics environmentally-friendly?

It’s a tough question to answer! We’re seeing more councils, foodservice businesses, and households become aware of the benefits of composting, but we’re not sure whether that same awareness extends to bioplastics and their intended methods of disposal. 

Here at Ecolateral, we’re pushing for an end to all single-use plastic. But, we recognise that bioplastics are a better alternative to petroleum-based plastic — when disposed of correctly, of course. 

What do you think about bioplastics? Join the conversation on Facebook or Instagram!