Plastic is perhaps the most revolutionary material created in the post-industrial age, and for good reason. It has transformed our lives over the last 50-60 years and found applications in literally every aspect of life (from the bathroom to the international space station!), due to its versatility, durability and low cost. It is lightweight, comes in literally any shape and size and we can no longer imagine life without it.
However, it is this amazing versatility and ubiquity that has now made plastic a blight on our lives, causing us to drown in more plastic than we’re able to process. The great pacific garbage patch, Blue Planet and a score of frightful statistics show that we cannot continue the way we’re going, and yet we’re on a trajectory to produce more plastic than ever by 2040.
Bioplastics to the rescue?
In a world that is inundated with non-biodegradable plastic, the idea of a new, degradable alternative is highly appealing. It could offer all the benefits of conventional plastic but break down like biological waste after use. A degradable plastic would mean we’d no longer need to reduce production but carry on, safe in the knowledge that this could be made to go away like standard plastic has failed to do. So, what do we need to know about bio-plastics and their apparent biodegradability?
What are bioplastics?
The term bioplastic implies that the material is either a) made from a biological material and therefore not fossil fuels or b) that it can break down and biodegrade after use and suggests that it doesn’t pose the same difficulties as plastic. Unfortunately, both of those principles are more complicated than they might at first glance suggest. For example, the term does not mean that all bio-plastics are biodegradable, and neither does it mean that all biodegradable plastics are organically-based. In fact, it can mean that they could be partly made from organic material and that they could potentially break down fully, given the right conditions.
One of the main types of bio-plastic is made from something called Polylactic Acid (PLA). This can be made from materials like sugar, corn or potato starch so does not require the use of fossil fuels. However, in order for PLA to biodegrade it needs to be disposed of in specialist composting facilities which can heat it to over 58°C, which then enables certain bacteria to start breaking it down into carbon dioxide and water in the space of a few weeks. Though this sounds ideal, the problem is that the facilities to process it either do not currently exist or are not widespread enough to cope with supply. In addition, if PLA is not treated in the above way and left in nature, or finds its way to the ocean to “degrade” naturally, it behaves much like regular plastic and can last for a very long time.
Another form of bio-plastic is polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA). This has been shown to biodegrade in a lab setting simulating a marine environment but again, it needs to reach certain temperatures to do that. So, in colder or even temperate waters like the Mediterranean, it could stay intact indefinitely.
Though some products can be made with the use of organic materials and labelled as bio-plastic they still have the exact same molecular structure of conventional plastics such as PET, and therefore pose the same disposable challenges it does. Marketing these products as a viable ecological alternative skews the public’s perception and disposal practices and subsequently complicates their processing through the waste stream.
It’s worth noting that none of the above materials are to be confused with enzyme mediated plastics which are in no way made using organic materials, but are in fact conventional plastics infused with organic additives meant to speed up degradation (though these claims are yet to be verified).
Need for lifecycle analysis
As these are such a new product, there is urgent need for more research into the environmental impact of bioplastics, including the energy used to make them and the land and resources required to grow the raw materials that constitute them. This ‘lifecycle analysis’ would help us assess its sustainability from creation until disposal and would also allow us to compare it with other types of packaging. Of course, it goes without saying, that in the vast majority of cases, fully-reusable items are better for the environment than anything disposable. We should ultimately be trying to reduce the amount of ‘single use’ products we make before any other action.
How are bioplastics processed?
Though it would appear that bioplastics are the way forward, there needs to be more research or insight into whether the infrastructure to process their products is available. Biodegradable or no, if the industrial facilities are not widely available to compost bio-plastics, then they’re no different to conventional materials. What’s worse is the fact that these products are designed to melt at lower temperatures than standardised plastic consumables which means we’re not able to recycle them, so they end up going in the general household waste. The outcome is that the product touted as a solution to plastic over-production ends up being less sustainable than if traditional (ideally recycled) plastics were used in the first place.
If handled responsibly however, it is possible to manage bioplastic waste. The use of these products has been most successful in outdoor events like festivals, where they operate a “closed loop” system designed to collect and manage waste. Many event organisers have even signed pledges to better manage their plastic waste.
What can be done by consumers?
As with any plastic use, the answer is to use as little as possible. Don’t be afraid to raise the issue with sellers or distributors. For example, when given vegware by vendors you could ask what waste disposal arrangements they have in place to ensure that the bioplastics are being composted. Another solution is to encourage them to consider a system of reusable containers, or suggest that event attendees bring reusable containers from home.
Finally, if something claims to be compostable, make sure to look for the seedling logo which is the only genuine indicator of whether a plastic, like the bags used for food waste collection, is biodegradable. Anything else will require research to establish whether you can add it to your back garden compost bin and how long it will take to break down.
For the time being please remember that any plastics that do not carry the seedling logo cannot be placed in your food waste collection bin, nor in your kerbside recycling, so please dispose of them in the general waste. For information about what we take, check our A-Z search of waste items.