Bioplastics have been getting a lot of praise lately from the environmental community for being a better alternative to traditional plastic… but is plant-based plastic really all it’s cracked up to be? And what is the difference between plastic and bioplastic anyways? Today, we’re going to look at bioplastic vs plastic and find out!
What is bioplastic?
Bioplastics (such as PLA, bioPE, and bioPET) look and feel like ordinary plastics but are sourced from organic materials. To be honest, there isn’t a clear-cut definition out there to define bioplastic. But most of the time bioplastic has the following three traits:
- Is sourced from plant-based and/or renewable materials such as corn, sugarcane, or wheat,
- Is compostable,
- Is (sometimes) biodegradable.
Bioplastic will occasionally be called “biodegradable plastic” or “plant-based plastic”. This can get confusing because not all plant-based plastic follows this definition. For example, Coca-Cola’s plant bottle was called “plant-based plastic” even though its earlier iterations were only partially sourced from renewable materials. The takeaway here is that some products are a blend of regular and bio-based plastic yet are still called bioplastic.
Bioplastics got a reputation for being environmentally friendly since they require 65% less energy and generate fewer greenhouse gas emissions during the manufacturing process when compared to conventional plastic.
Does this mean bioplastic is the eco-friendly option? Not exactly.
To make bioplastic, the land must first be cleared to grow raw materials such as corn or sugarcane. This means that cultivating bioplastic contributes to deforestation and takes up land space that would otherwise have been used to grow food. For example, bioplastic production in countries like Thailand and Brazil has devastating impacts on forest cover and in turn, biodiversity. And like other forms of agriculture, this can also bring with it the overuse of fertilizer, pesticides, and even lake eutrophication.
What products are made from bioplastics?
What’s the difference between bioplastic and plastic?
Plastics are a big part of our daily lives and an even bigger source of pollution. This is mainly because plastic is inexpensive to produce and can be used in so many different applications in industry as well as in everyday life. To put it into perspective, the global plastic industry was worth about $579 billion in 2020 and is expected to be worth $750 billion by 2028! Today, bioplastics only have about 1% of the market share but this number is rising.
Bioplastic is technically just another type of plastic. When thinking about the seven different kinds of plastic, bioplastic falls into the #7 or “other” category. But unlike bioplastic, traditional plastic is petroleum-based meaning that it comes from fossil fuels.
At the nitty-gritty level, plastic is made from a chain of hydrocarbon molecules, also called polymers. The structure and order of the chain determine specific traits of the product like plastic durability and hardness. In the case of bioplastic, these polymers would be bio-based (like from cornstarch) and mixed together with biomass glycerol (like from glycerin) under heat.
We also need to talk about human health here! Some plastics contain bisphenols (like BPA or BSA) which are added to plastic during the production process to make plastic products more durable. Unfortunately, these chemicals are also known to affect male and female hormone function. Therefore, we have seen the rise of BPA-free plastic like Tritan plastic. This is not a concern with products that are 100% bioplastic.
At the end of the product's life, plastic could sit in a landfill for up to 600 years, leaching out toxic chemicals as it breaks down. During this process, traditional plastic will also degrade into smaller and smaller fragments. These are known as microplastics and will eventually bioaccumulate up natural food chains and end up in our food! Recent studies have even found traces of microplastics in human placenta, this is really scary stuff. On the flip side, bioplastic only takes a few months to decompose and will break down to its raw components (carbon dioxide, water, or compost).
What are the pros and cons of bioplastic?
Because of these shortcomings of bioplastic, some people are deciding to skip plastic altogether and go zero waste. If this is more your jam, I would highly recommend checking out this article on plastic-free food storage containers….
Is bioplastic biodegradable?
Contrary to popular belief, even if a product can break down or dissolve, it may not be completely biodegradable! PVA for example is a synthetic plastic polymer and will never fully biodegrade even as it dissolves. Silicone is another good example here, due to its low solubility and high vaporization rates many people think silicone is biodegradable but surprise surprise, it’s not.
For a product to be biodegradable it must be able to fully break down with or without oxygen. Microorganisms like bacteria and fungi will also help with the breakdown and turn the product into carbon dioxide, water, and biomass.
So, is bioplastic biodegradable? Usually. Bioplastics are not fully biodegradable if they have been mixed with synthetic polymers or chemical additives. Being said, bioplastics are sometimes biodegradable, but not always.
Is bioplastic compostable?
Compostable does not mean biodegradable! For a product to be compostable, it must be able to break down with the help of oxygen and microorganisms and safely go on to contribute to a nutrient-rich organic soil commonly known as compost!
Under the right temperature and pressure, bioplastics are compostable. The biowaste recovered from bioplastic can then be used as compost or broken down again at a waste incineration plant and used for renewable energy.
How are bioplastics disposed of?
There is so much misinformation out there on composting and recycling that I don’t blame consumers for accidentally putting bioplastic in the wrong waste bin.
Bioplastics are meant to be recycled, composted, or used for energy recovery:
- Recycle - Bio-based plastics, such as “BioPE” and “BioPET” can be recycled since they are chemically identical to their traditional plastic counterparts, PE and PET.
- Compost - If the product is 100% plant-based, the bioplastic product can be composted at a special facility under the right conditions. Because bioplastics can't be composted at home in a compost bin, this is ultimately adding an extra step for the consumer to ensure their waste is disposed of properly.
- Incinerate - On some occasions, bioplastic can be used for energy recovery. When incinerated the CO2 from incinerated bioplastic can be recaptured and put toward new bio-based products.
If sent to a landfill, bioplastic products will not break down properly; it might result in more methane emissions and a negative impact on our climate.
Another question you should be asking yourself when you’re ready to dispose of your bioplastic product is, “can I reuse this?”. Reusing something old is always better than buying new, plastic or not! Lucky for you, I have tons of ideas on what to do with your old plastic containers and Tupperware! These ideas can also apply to bioplastics!
Is bioplastic better than plastic?
After looking at the pros and cons, it’s obvious that bioplastics are certainly leading us in the right direction away from traditional plastics – but they aren’t perfect.
The answer to this question really depends on the raw materials that went into the bioplastic product, its country of origin, and how it was disposed of. Some studies have actually suggested that the CO2 emissions resulting from growing the raw materials needed to make bioplastics don’t make up for the emission saved from avoiding fossil fuel-based polymers.
A final word on Bioplastic Vs Plastic
I love talking about the alternatives to traditional plastic out there like glass, bamboo, and you guessed it - bioplastic!
The rising popularity of bioplastic is contributing to a positive industry trend of moving away from traditional plastic and using sustainable technology to find better alternatives. This is something I can get behind!
But it’s important to remember that while bioplastic certainly has its benefits, it also has its shortcomings, and a better alternative is to try and refuse new products altogether when possible. What do you think about bioplastics? Share your thoughts below!