There isn’t a short answer to this because the term bioplastic is a blanket term used that can cover a range of plastic-like materials.
You can argue that the term ‘bioplastic’ is cynically designed to make us think that it’s an environmentally friendly alternative to traditional plastic. However, it isn’t as simple as the name would suggest.
What should be considered is that bioplastics are essentially still plastic, and still have the potential to wreak as much havoc on the environment as their traditional counterpart.
Where bioplastics generally differ from traditional plastic is in the way that they are manufactured. Rather than using fossil fuels and petroleum, bioplastics are formed using renewable sources, such as corn starch or sugar cane.
There are new types of bioplastics being developed all the time. Manufacturers are gradually making the swaps for packaging, bags and medical supplies. Anything from Algae-based material to seaweed, it seems, can be utilised to create a more environmentally friendly alternative and all as versatile as traditional plastics. In summary, though, these can be split into three main groups:
Using bio polyesters such as polyethylene (PE) or polyethylene terephthalate (PET). These are often produced from agricultural sources, such as sugar cane or corn starch.
Bio-based and biodegradable plastics:
Using materials such as polylactic acid (PLA) or polybutylene succinate (PBS). These plastics break down in industrial composting facilities.
Fossil-based but biodegradable:
Using materials such as PBAT or PCL.
This is where it gets really complicated. There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ answer to this.
It’s helpful here to understand the difference between biodegradable, degradable and compostable.
Perhaps it helps to consider how traditional plastic breaks down. The majority of traditional plastics are petroleum based. It takes a long time to degrade and, as it does, releases toxic microbes or microplastics into the environment. These microbes find their way into water, air, soils and can have devastating effects on the environment and biodiversity.
Biodegradable is the term generally applied to bioplastics that are, at least in part, formed of organic matter. The idea being that they can break down more quickly and without releasing harmful microplastics. This, however, is a far more complex process than we are led to believe.
Under the right conditions, it’s possible for some bioplastics to break down into carbon dioxide, water or compost. It’s important to note that there need to be some fairly specific circumstances in order for this to really work.
In the first instance, a bioplastic needs to be, at least partially bio-based
Secondly, you cannot simply plonk your bioplastic on your home compost and hope for the microorganisms to get to work. They need to be disposed of correctly and require strict industrial conditions in order to break down. If these conditions are not met, then bioplastic has just as much chance of ending up in landfills or polluting the oceans as any traditional plastic.
And lastly, there are some bioplastics that will still release toxic microbes in the degrading process.
So, whilst in theory, a bioplastic can be a better option than petroleum-based plastic, it’s more complex than just a straight swap for it to really make an impact. Realistically, there is so much research to do should you want to really find a bioplastic that could be considered environmentally friendly, that it makes sense to avoid them altogether.
The honest answer to this question is ‘sometimes’. Again, the issue here is the blanket term ‘bioplastic’ being applied to a wide range of materials. Whilst some are specifically designed for recycling, the resources to do so simply aren’t there. Recycling plants are not always equipped with the specifics required of many types of bioplastic.
In order to really make an impact, there needs to be a meaningful discussion about how we, as a country and a global community, deal with waste. Without this, the switch to bioplastics by large conglomerates and companies is little more than Greenwashing.
Yes, if managed properly. However, as seen from the above, this is not as simple as it would first appear. Once you begin to dig a little deeper, you realise that ‘compostable’ doesn’t necessarily mean what you might think.
If you can ensure that the above criteria are met, then yes, bioplastics are going to be much better for the environment in the long run. However, it’s a bit of a leap to suggest that this is going to solve the plastic waste problem.
So, what is the solution to plastic waste? Before it all gets too overwhelming, there are ways that you can help fight the problem of plastic waste.
Here are a few tips that can help:
At Truthpaste we have always aimed to produce a zero-waste and plastic-free product. We feel strongly that sustainability shouldn’t be a gimmick but a goal. Rather than simply replace plastic with bioplastic we feel that it is better and more environmentally sound to avoid plastic altogether. Our HQ operates on a zero-to-landfill approach and we are constantly looking at ways that we can make as little impact on the planet as possible.
The journey to a plastic-free health and beauty regime can take some time and a lot of research. However, we are proud to be an easy and simple swap to achieve that goal.
An overview of non-biodegradable bioplastics, Md Hafizur Rahman, Prakashbhai R.Bhoi, Department of Mechanical Engineering, Georgia Southern University, February 2021.
Biodegradation of bioplastics in natural environments, S. Mehdi, EmadianTurgut T.Onay, BurakDemirel, Institute of Environmental Sciences, Boğazici University, 11 October 2016.
Sustainability of bioplastics: Opportunities and challenges, Sourbh Thakura, Jyoti Chaudhary, Bhawna Sharma, Ankit Verma, Sigitas Tamuleviciusa, Vijay KumarThakura, Institute of Materials Science of Kaunas University of Technology, School of Chemistry, Shoolini University, Solan, Enhanced Composites and Structures Center, School of Aerospace, Transport and Manufacturing, Cranfield University, 27 April 2018.
Did you know that our oceans cover 70% of the worlds surface? They produce at least 50% of the worlds oxygen and absorb around 30% of the carbon dioxide we humans produce. Our oceans are home to the most biodiverse places on earth.
Today is World Oceans Day. Whilst it’s a great opportunity to highlight the issues and problems our seas are facing on a global scale, we must also take the time to see a positive movement and how we can get involved to help.