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Bioplastics: Planet-saviours or secret polluters?

If you’re anything like us, you’ll be a keen follower of - or perhaps even pioneer in! - the eco online space. And if there’s one word we’ve seen cropping up online more than any other recently, it’s “bioplastics”. 

The bioplastic industry is steadily growing, with increasing demand from producers to meet the sustainability savviness of eco conscious consumers. From products to packaging, these plastics are becoming key players in the move toward planet-friendly policies amongst plenty of household names. Or so it seems...

Bioplastics: Planet-saviours or secret polluters?

 

We know what you’re thinking: What on earth is a bioplastic?!

We were asking the same question! As eco advocates, we believe it is our responsibility to share what we learn about new buzzwords in the environmental movement. That’s why we’re going to explain what these mysterious materials really are, the reason ‘bio’ doesn’t neutralise ‘plastic’, how to use products created from bioplastics in an eco-friendly way, and how to outsmart the unfiltered greenwashing from powerful - and pollutive - corporations.

What are bioplastics?

You’ve (maybe) heard of microplastics… you’ve (probably) heard of normal plastics… meet the new eco activist of the plastic world: bioplastics! Bioplastics - unlike materials such as cotton, linen or regular plastic - are a collection of different materials. According to European Bioplastics, a material qualifies as a bioplastic if it is biodegradable, biobased, or both.

If a material is biodegradable, it is chemically structured to convert into a natural substance. If a material is biobased, it is partly produced using plants, such as corn or sugarcane. As such, bioplastics are categorised into three groups: biodegradable bioplastics; biobased bioplastics; and biodegradable and biobased bioplastics.

Now that’s a mouthful!

The bioplastic pros

In comparison to other plastics (though we must acknowledge, this standard of comparison is not particularly demanding...) bioplastics offer a production process which emits 75% less carbon. The CO2 emissions produced when manufacturing other plastics are harmful to the environment because it is these toxic greenhouse gases which prompt the planet to heat up.

A common argument against plant-based bioplastics is their use of raw materials, asserting that they could otherwise be used as a food source to mitigate the global food crisis. However, this is deceptive, as the production of bioplastics utilises industrial-grade corn, for example, which would not be suitable for human consumption.

As with many exciting eco initiatives and inventions, there is a plethora of technological developments throughout the industry to establish even more raw materials that could be used to create bioplastics. In particular, new technology has proven the possibility of producing biodegradable bioplastics with hemp, seaweed and other plants. The biodegradability of these materials offer zero-waste credits, too.

Furthermore, the raw materials used to create bioplastics contrast with the petroleum oil commonplace amongst normal plastics. This renewable and sustainable alternative avoids the exploitation of a limited resource, while their non-toxic nature won’t pollute food and beverages with chemicals as is frequent with other plastics.

The bioplastic cons

While the first ever plastic is said to have been created in the mid-1800s, bioplastics are less than a century old. These materials are, therefore, far from designed and produced to eco-friendly perfection - don’t let the ‘bio’ fool you!

Bioplastics need a very specific set of conditions in order to properly degrade. 

In fact, in many cases bioplastics can actually only degrade effectively in specialised industrial composting facilities. Take Vegware, for example. Whilst on the surface it seems like a sustainability saviour, their packaging will only break down after 12 weeks in an industrial composter!

This would all be fine and dandy if industrial composters were commonplace but, let’s be honest, they’re not. Most of our waste goes to either landfill or to a recycling facility. And bioplastics are usually not recyclable, potentially even contaminating other plastics and meaning that they can’t be processed either. 

The problem itself isn’t really in the material, but in our waste management systems. Maybe in the future we will have compost waste bins in all public places. We certainly hope so! Until then though, using bioplastics isn’t as simple as it seems.

It’s also important to note that the effortlessness of bioplastics makes them an attractive alternative to sustainability newbies who want to make environmental kindness easy. And while we are always advocating for the simple steps toward a conscious lifestyle, we do not endorse one of the biggest bioplastic temptations: Littering! That’s right, bioplastics are naturally eco-friendly, but they are not going to be able to deliver those zero-waste benefits if left in unnatural conditions. Aka the floor of your local highstreet...

Until more work is done on making a material that is truly sustainable OR on creating more spaces where they can break down effectively, we may want to focus on swapping plastics with a whole range of eco-friendly alternatives such as bamboo, cellulose and paper.

Variety is the spice of life, after all!


We want to know what you think about bioplastics, now that you’ve weighed up the pros and cons. Are these materials what you expected them to be before you read this post? Do you think that, combined with non-plastic alternatives, they could see the plastic industry become more sustainable as a whole? Let us know your thoughts on Instagram, at @shop.econess!

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