Updated: Mar 23
As we deal with the “plastic problem”, “Bioplastic “gives the idea of a novel hero. It portrays all the good characteristics of conventional plastics and is not made from oil. Well intentioned, green minded beings are naturally leaning towards the adorned name. But experts say it is “complicated”.
Let us understand the basics:
Bioplastics are plastics that are biobased, and may or may not be biodegradable. Biobased means that the raw material is derived from plants or other biological material instead of petroleum. Biodegradation is the property of a plastic to decompose which depends on its chemical composition. It does not depend on source. Biobased does not imply biodegradation. Bioplastics are being made from corn, sugar cane, even orange peels, waste water and shrimp shells.
The downside of bioplastics-
Bioplastics have several “if” tags attached. They will be the answer to present plastic problem if they can be composted at home, if they can fully biodegrade in marine and landfill environment without leaving any residue, if they can be nonhazardous when ingested by marine fauna and if they do not leach out toxins when in contact with food…
Bioplastics are considered carbon neutral. When microbes break them down during composting there is no net increase in the CO2 as they absorbed that same amount of CO2 during their plant life. Note here that we need to consider the emission of toxins from fertilizers and use of petroleum for farming gear while considering the total life cycle of manufacturing bioplastics. If they are dumped in a landfill then they release methane which is considered even more harmful than carbon dioxide to the environment. Synthetic additives may be added to bioplastics to better their properties. The overall life cycle of manufacturing bioplastics might not be all that carbon neutral after all. Land might be diverted from corn grown for food production to corn grown for manufacturing plastics. It might also trigger price hikes in food stuff.
End of life-
Since bioplastics have the potential of replacing conventional plastics in almost every field, it is crucial to think about what will happen to it once we are done using it. Popular drives like “strawless in Seattle” to stop use of single use plastic straws are picking up, but ditching the plastic straw and replacing it with PLA bioplastic straw is not the right move unless all the straws are recycled or disposed off safely at the end of their life. In most cities the infrastructure needed to recycle bioplastics is not in place yet. Sustainably sourced paper straws that can be recycled along with other paper items or reusable steel straws is a much better solution. To shop for certified sustainable paper straws and steel straws in UAE check https://www.theecoloopshop.com/product-page/food-grade-paper-disposable-straws
There are big brand names like Procter & Gamble, Puma, Coca cola, Lego, IKEA, Toyota investing in bioplastics. Predictions are that future is bright for bioplastics. Global production of bioplastics is expected to rise to 6.1 million tons in 2021. A mere 9% of plastic is actually recycled while a whopping 79% is landfilled and remaining 12% is incinerated globally. The point of using biodegradable plastic is defeated completely if bioplastics also meet the same fate which is highly likely.
They are not all bad news. It is almost impossible to imagine life without plastic and bioplastic makes it possible while eliminating dependency on fossil fuels. Bioplastic gives us an option of composting, and thus can be seen as an opportunity for better waste management.
How can we make conscious choices?
Be wary of greenwashed products. “Greenwashed” products are those which give an impression of being eco-friendly due to their brand names or packaging. A casual consumer can easily fall for attractive names like GREEN, ECO FRIENDLY, EARTH FRIENDLY, NATURAL etc. None of these guarantee that the products will not cause any harm to the environment or marine animals. Look for a third party certification that guarantees compostability of a bioplastic product and make sure that the product reaches its respective compostable environment at the end of its life.
These are some of the popular certifications and what they indicate:
EN 14995:2006 and EN 14995:2006 (seedling logo)- The product is compostable in industrial facility.
OK compost- The product is compostable in industrial facility. OK biodegradable followed by words like SOIL, WATER, MARINE and HOME guarantees that the product will biodegrade in the soil, water, marine environment and home compost pit respectively without leaving any visible residue.
1 to 5 stars along with OK biodegradable, signify the percentage of biobased raw material used in the product. 1 star signifies 20% to 40% biobased material upto 5 stars which signify 80% biobased material.
ASTM D64000- The product is compostable in industrial facility.
BPI- The product is compostable in industrial facility.
Oxo biodegradable plastic is sometimes thought to be bio based or even compostable. Factually it is completely oil based with additives that aid in faster degradation. If it is littered on ground or carried to the sea it breaks down to smaller pieces faster than conventional plastic and makes the carbon in the polymer available to microbes in later stages. Though the entire process of break down is faster than conventional plastics, it is not possible to state precisely how fast it is.
All the types of plastics have their own flaws. Changing the source of plastics is just one part of the solution but changing the way and the amount of plastics we use is the silver bullet. Let us pledge to use less plastic be it petroleum based or biobased.