Are Bioplastics the Answer to Our Plastic Waste Problem?

Did you ever stop to think about how that plastic water bottle you are drinking from comes from the same resource as the gasoline in your car? Yes, plastic is the third most commonly used product derived from petroleum. In fact, about 6-7% of every barrel of oil is used to make plastics!

We are now inundated by plastic in our lives, and sadly it has ended up in our landfills and oceans. The good news is that science may be able to help with our plastic waste problem. The development of bioplastics hold promise. However, not all of the current bioplastics live up to the hype.

What Are Bioplastics?

Traditional plastic that come from petroleum can take hundreds of years to decompose. On the other hand, bioplastics are created from renewable sources that are biodegradable. Examples include vegetable fats and oils, corn or potato starch, microbiota, agricultural by-products, and proteins like wheat gluten and casein.

There are two main types of bioplastics used so far. PLA (polyactic acid) is typically made from the sugars in corn starch or sugarcane, and is even edible. It can look and behave like polyethylene (used in plastic films, packing, and bottles), polystyrene (Styrofoam and plastic cutlery), or polypropylene (packaging, auto parts, textiles). PHA (polyhydroxyalkanoate) is made by microorganisms that produce plastic from organic materials. Because it is biodegradable and will not harm living tissue, it is often used in the medical field for sutures, slings, bone plates, and skin substitutes. It is also used for food packaging.

These cutting-edge products have already made their way into several industries, with the global bioplastic market projected to grow from $17 billion in 2017 to almost $44 billion in 2022. Bioplastics are used in agriculture, the textile industry, the automotive industry, medicine, consumer goods like toys, and in the container and packaging market. They are also now being used to create the plastic for 3D printing.

Benefits of Bioplastics

So, what’s all the fuss over these bioplastics anyway? In general, bioplastics have the potential to be more sustainable than those plastics derived from petroleum. Bioplastics:

  • Emit less carbon, reducing their overall carbon footprint.
  • Do not involve the consumption of non-renewable raw materials.
  • Require less fossil fuel resources to produce.
  • Result in less waste.
  • Are less toxic.
  • Do not contain additives that are harmful to health, such as phthalates or bisphenol.

According to Columbia University, a 2017 study found that switching from traditional plastic to corn-based PLA would cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent. The study also concluded that if traditional plastics were produced using renewable energy sources, greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced 50 to 75 percent.

Concerns about Bioplastics

Although bioplastics are a significant improvement to traditional plastic, there are still some kinks to work out before we can say they are the end-all-be-all solution. For starters, it is currently hard to claim that all types of bioplastics are more environmentally friendly than traditional plastics when every aspect of their life cycle is considered. To grow the raw materials require pesticides and herbicides and water. For example, bioplastics made from corn or potato starch require land that takes away from areas needed for food production.

Another issue has to do with their biodegradability. Unfortunately, most types of bioplastics currently on the market need high temperature industrial composting facilities to break down, so they won’t just disappear in your backyard compost bucket. Few cities currently have the infrastructure needed to deal with bioplastics, which means they aren’t being processed as intended. So many claims about compostable plastic are still just possibilities, not realities.

Innovation in Bioplastic Field Continues

Fortunately, researchers around the world continue to develop greener varieties of bioplastics that can more effectively reduce plastic pollution and our carbon footprint. In fact, a ton of exciting news has come out recently. Here are some of the highlights:

  • A new bioplastic, PEF (polyethylene furanoate), is expected to enter the market in 2020 to replace PET. It is 100% bio-based and will be particularly useful for packaging.
  • More durable bioplastics are being designed for automotive, electronics, and consumer goods, such as Electrolux’s new refrigerator made from corn and sugarcane bioplastic material.
  • New bioplastics are being made in laboratories from straw, wood chips, and food waste. Genetically modifying bacteria eat the wood and produce useful chemicals to create the plastic.
  • Researchers have developed food packaging made from corn and shellfish by-products. What’s even more amazing is that these wrappers are edible, too!
  • One company is converting avocado seeds into bioplastics to manufacture biodegradable drinking straws and cutlery.
  • Designers have developed a form of bioplastic made from algae, which could completely replace synthetic plastics and be used for 3D printers.
  • Researchers are also looking into developing bioplastics from banana peels, shrimp shells, and seaweed. These options are so much more sustainable than using food crops like corn or sugarcane.

Keep your eye out for even more trailblazing innovations that have the potential to replace petroleum-based plastics and solve our plastic waste dilemma.

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