During my time as a zero waste program coordinator, I saw a huge rise in the use of bioplastics. University caterers, cafes, and restaurants were all switching over to this plastic alternative.
Meeting the global demand for a decrease in plastic, while still catering to the single-use, “throw-away” lifestyle that many are accustomed to can be a daunting task for businesses. So it only makes sense that something like this would come to fruition.
But what are bioplastics, exactly? And are they as eco-friendly as they make themselves out to be?
What are Bioplastics?
Unlike regular plastic, which is made from petroleum, bioplastics utilize plant matter such as corn, potato starch, sugar cane, and other forms of cellulose.
Bioplastics, also labeled PLA or PHA, can be used for a wide variety of items. These can include anything from cutlery, to coffee cups, to food wrap/containers.
In general, the intention of bioplastics is to create single-use items from materials that are in harmony with the earth and can eventually breakdown in nature.
Bioplastic Pros and Cons
There are many different facets to the use of bioplastics, and not all are made the same. However, they do have some positives.
Pros of bioplastic:
- Generally* compostable, aka break down into organic plant matter
- Reduced carbon footprint
- Less energy intensive to produce than regular plastic
- Strong and versatile
*The reason why I say they are generally compostable is because certain bioplastics only breakdown certain ways.
Some bioplastics are backyard compostable, meaning you can chuck them in your home compost bin where they may naturally break down in a matter of weeks!
Most bioplastics, however, can only breakdown in special high heat composting facilities. This is where the production and purchase of these items gets tricky.
Cons of bioplastic:
- Many bioplastics can only be composted in high-heat facilities
- Biodegradable plastics generally use petroleum as part of their product, thus causing them to not fully breakdown
- Most are not properly disposed of and do not breakdown in landfills
Bioplastic: Good or Bad?
As you can see, the use of bioplastics is a tricky one. Although they use renewable resources and less energy than traditional plastic, they still pose many problems.
If bioplastics are not able to make their way to an industrial compost facility, then they will end up in our landfills and oceans, where they will act the same as regular plastic.
More often than not, I see businesses trying to “go green” and start selling items in bioplastic packaging. Most people buy these items thinking they are doing the right thing, but end up having to throw them out in regular landfill bins, where they will not fully break down, thus defeating the purpose.
If businesses do have the option to send compostables to the right facilities, then that is wonderful! However, there is still the problem of making sure customers throw these items out in the correct bin.
I worked many events where the use of bioplastics were prevalent. We would ensure that all waste was thrown in the right bin by volunteers diligently telling event attendees how to do so.
Without that, our bioplastics would have most definitely ended up in the landfill.
An Ongoing Debate
Some may believe that bioplastics are a step in the right direction, while others may insist that they are not.
It is a topic that is still up for debate. In fact, many scientists have weighed in on this issue as well. Check out this awesome National Geographic article that speaks more about bioplastic.
Whether you agree with bioplastics or not, they are still, unfortunately a “single-use” item.
Perhaps one of the best ways to combat this issue is to not contribute to “throw away” culture in the first place.
Investing in reusable items may be the single best thing you can do for the environment. Carrying things like reusable utensils, grocery bags, or coffee cups with you can make a huge positive impact.
I’m curious, what are your thoughts on the subject of bioplastics? Good or bad? It can be a tricky subject and depends on a lot of factors. Please let me know your thoughts in a comment below!