Are bioplastics better for the environment or a waste of time?

There has been massive pushback against the use of plastics over
the past few years, including single-use plastic
bans in cities all over the world. Industrial entrepreneurs have
responded to these mounting concerns with a new product that seems
like the perfect solution– bioplastic. It looks and feels like
plastic, but its made from plants, so it’s good for the
environment, right?

Turns out, the answer is much more complicated and likely just
another case of greenwashing.

spinach inside bioplastic container

What are bioplastics?

Traditional plastic is a petroleum-derived product that is made
from fossil fuels. In fact,
8 percent
of all oil is used for the production of plastic.

Bioplastic, on the other hand, is made at least partly from
plant-based materials. There are two subcategories of bioplastics
that are important to understand:

Bio-based plastics

These plastics are entirely or partially made from plant-based
materials. Most are made from sugarcane that is processed in
industrial ethanol facilities, but some bioplastics use corn and
other plant materials.

The plant materials are used in a lab to create chemical compounds that
are identical to petroleum-based compounds. For example,
polyethylene terephthalate (PET) can be made from either plant or
petroleum products, but the end material is the same and it is not

“There are a lot of bioplastics or materials that are called
bioplastics that are not biodegradable,” said Constance
Ißbrücker, the lead for environmental affairs at European

There are two main types of bioplastic produced: polyactic acid
(PLA) and polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA). PLA is made from plant sugars, while PHA is
made from microbes that produce the substance when they are
deprived of nutrients.

Related: A guide to the different types of plastic

Biodegradable plastics

Biodegradable plastics are typically plant-based items that can
be broken down by microbes within a
reasonable time frame. All biodegradable plastics, however, require
very specific conditions within an industrial composting facility.
Otherwise, these so-called “biodegradable plastics” also
function like petroleum-based plastic and remain in the environment
for hundreds of years.

What are the benefits of bioplastics?

Although they aren’t perfect, many environmental and waste
experts still believe bioplastics have the potential to reduce our
negative impact on the environment. Here are a few of the main
benefits of bioplastics:

Bioplastics reduce fossil fuel demand

Since bioplastics are made from plant-based materials instead of
fossil fuels,
their rising popularity means less oil extraction specifically for
the purpose of producing plastic.

Bioplastics are less toxic

Despite their chemical similarity, bioplasitcs
do not contain
bisphenol A (BPA) which is known to be a toxic
hormone disrupter. BPA is commonly found in conventional plastics,
although it is increasingly avoided.

Bioplastics support rural, agrarian economies

Oil is concentrated in just a few countries and controlled by
major corporations but plants, on the other hand, are everywhere.
For this reason, it is believed that bioplastics support a more
equitable and distributed economy. Who would you rather give your
money to, a wealthy oil executive or a farmer?

Related: How to easily make your own reusable produce bags

What are the drawbacks? Bioplastics
require monocultures

While you might feel better about supporting agriculture instead
of the oil execs, there is still a lot of controversy about
industrial agriculture and the use of land for plastic production.
Currently, only 0.02 percent of agricultural land is used to supply
factories, but with the rising interest and demand, the percentage
of land use is expected to rise.

If the bioplastic industry expands into more agricultural land, some
worry it will take over land that is needed to feed the world

In addition to the threat to food security, the spread of
monoculture crops like sugar and corn wreck havoc on natural
ecosystems. The conversion of land to agriculture causes
deforestation, desertification, loss of biodiversity and
habitat, and increased pressure on limited water reserves.

So these new straws aren’t saving the seas?

Many people have seen the photos of sea turtles suffocating from
a plastic straw stuck in their nose. In fact, these images were so
powerful it further convinced people to ditch straws and opt for
the biodegradable plastic
straw, which we all thought would surely save the sea turtles
without getting soggy in an iced coffee.

Unfortunately, all biodegradable plastics can only biodegrade in
industrial composting facilities,
where temperatures reach a consistent 136 degrees Fahrenheit. And
if your town doesn’t have those facilities, these new “green”
straws are no better than regular straws in terms of threatening
marine life. In other words, they don’t breakdown in the open
environment and they don’t break down in the sea.

Frederik Wurm,
a plastic chemist, believes drinking straws made from PLA are
“the perfect example for greenwashing.” They cost the vendor
more money and they don’t break down on the beach or in the

Some PHA materials have been found to break down on the
seafloor, but the efficacy depends on the environment. Although it
only took two weeks
to breakdown in the tropics, it took months in colder climates and
might never break down in the Arctic.

Innovation and investment are imperative

Given the surging popularity of bioplastics and biodegradable
plastics, there is a need for increased investigation and
investment in the industry. The best tool against the overwhelming
challenge of climate change is
human innovation. New products that aren’t just greenwashing but
are actually sustainable are needed and may be possible with demand
for more research.

“This is a field right now for entrepreneurial investors.
There’s no shortage of incredible opportunity for alternatives
that are marine degradable, that don’t overtax the land and our
food production system,”
said Dune Ives
, founder of an environmental nonprofit focused
on business solutions.


Images via Flickr,

Source: FS – All – Ecology – News 2
Are bioplastics better for the environment or a waste of time?