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Bioplastics - Fabulous Future or Scandalous Sidestep?


Three bioplastic disposable coffee cups.

Have you ever stumbled across a revolutionary innovation happening in the ecosphere? If not - you're about to. As we continue our evolution toward working with suppliers who are totally plastic-free, we have been reading about new alternatives plastic packaging. What initially started out as a bit of research into how we can best improve our own processes turned into an "oh we should share this" moment. I'm not sure about you, but one of the biggest frustrations we have when it comes to going totally plastic-free this July is the substantial amount of pre-packaged plastic that covers some of our favourite foods and drinks. Frustrated at this thought, our research took us to the discovery of bioplastics. Question is, how sustainable are they, really? 💭 Are they really a viable solution to our single-use plastic problem? 💭 Let's discuss...

First thing's first, what are bioplastics?

Bioplastics come in various forms, but generally they can be understood as a plant-based alternative to an abundance of conventional plastics. Unlike regular plastics, which are derived from crude oil, bioplastics are created from agricultural scraps, using the likes of corn, sugarcane, wheat and food waste 🍌

There are 10 broad types of bioplastic out there - we won’t bore you with the details of them all, but just the most prevalent two - thermoplastic starch and PLA.

Thermoplastic starch (TPS) currently represents the most widely used bioplastic, constituting about 50 percent of the bioplastics market. It is most often used in packaging (you may have seen it wrapped around a bouquet of flowers 💐) though it does have applications elsewhere. It can be biodegradable, but it is difficult to generalise across every TPS item as depending on how it’s blended, it can lose its ability to biodegrade (nightmare!) For now, until more research and a more concrete blending process is set - we’ll file this one under ‘possibly biodegradable’.

Polylactic acid (PLA) is a polyester produced by fermentation; bringing together lactic acids with a controlled carbohydrate source like corn starch or sugarcane. In theory it can be a biodegradable or recyclable material, but evidence is very circumstantial. PLA consists of renewable raw materials and is, like TPS, claimed to be biodegradable. In theory, it very well could be, but most of the evidence comes from industrial composting plants which control the environment in which items biodegrade. As such, it is strongly dependent on conditions including temperature and humidity, meaning outside a controlled industrial environment, it could find difficulty in biodegrading as nature intended. Worse still, and contrary to current opinion, PLA also emits substances that are harmful to health of people and wildlife - though it is less than regular, fossil fuel derivative plastics.

Green bioplastics pieces in hands.

So, they're basically still plastic? 🤔

Bioplastics are still plastics. The term 'plant-based' refers to the source of the material itself, not how the resulting plastic will behave after it's been thrown away. So while bioplastics are made from plants, that doesn't necessarily make them as earth-friendly as they seem from the outset. More so, as just mentioned, many of these bioplastic materials that are marked biodegradable, will only biodegrade in industrial environments (i.e council recycling centres and garden waste bins). Fabulous if they're disposed of correctly, but as we know with the substantial amount of single-use plastic cups, straws and more that make their way to the ocean instead of a bin (an estimated 8 million tonnes of plastic enters the ocean every year) - there are no guarantees they will reach an environment where they can become one with nature again quite as easily as a home compostable, or naturally biodegrading, product would.

With that said, while bioplastics are, at least for now, still emitting many familiar problems to their predecessors - you can't overlook that they do replace a hugely destructive element of regular plastic production - fossil fuels. In fact, since many are based from plants - which during growth also reduce the amount of CO2 in our atmosphere - there is a strong argument to suggest that if we are to continue to be reliant on a single-use, less than circular way of living then at least this will contribute a little more positively in reducing carbon emissions. If we were to 'substitute the annual global demand for fossil-based polyethylene (PE) with bio-based PE, we would save more than 42 million tonnes of CO2 per year' - the equivalent of 10 million flights around the world 🛫 Their replacements, based from agricultural and food scraps, could also instead go far toward fixing our problem with food waste. The question is, is that enough?

A pie chart projection of the percentage of bioplastics by 2030.

Could bioplastics be our future?

To rip off the band-aid - from our interpretation and despite its obvious proponents, bioplastics are not the way forward. They are simply a sidestep, and a potentially dangerous one at that.

The main draw of bioplastics are that they replace the fossil fuel production of traditional plastics, replacing it with plants and similar options. Fantastic. Or so it seems at first glance. Even though bioplastics use plants, they encounter many of the same problems after production as traditional plastics. They cannot always be recycled. They can only biodegrade under certain situations. When they do, they still let off harmful chemicals. But the most overriding aspect that cements our feeling that bioplastics are simply a sidestep are that regardless of the outlying factors, one fact remains, they are still manufactured to be single-use, and single-use will never be sustainable

Instead of big manufacturers moving toward packaging that is either completely plastic-free or wholly focussed on reusability, they are becoming swept up in a phase which may only replace the awful with the not-so-bad. To give an example of this kind of sidestepping danger in reality, just look at traditional smoking vs modern vapes. At their introduction, everyone looked at the positives of getting people weaned off tobacco - but by sidestepping to vapes they simply have a little less harmful addiction (or so we believe). Look at cigarettes in the 1940s - they were deemed healthy as well as trendy, and look how that’s turned out. We must avoid the same mistake with bioplastics. Big manufacturers and smaller businesses alike must not neglect the drawbacks and as yet unstudied aspects of bioplastics by focussing on their headline catching advantage of replacing fossil fuels with plants. Until they are further studied and developed to eliminate some of their glaring problems at least.

So where do we stand now in terms of this research? Articles come out every day highlighting its advantages and announcements that more big companies are moving toward bioplastic methods are just as regular. True qualitative articles in peer reviewed journals though, are more limited. Here in the UK, the government have been in the process over the last year to develop standards to cover biodegradable, compostable, and bio-based plastics. When it comes to fruition, we will have a better understanding of these materials, but until then it will require patience and not jumping the gun. At the moment - we do not know how to ensure these throw-away, plant-based plastics will biodegrade in any natural environment as their plant-based manufacture and ‘bio’ title would seem to indicate. That is dangerous. Yes, bioplastics have a lower carbon footprint than traditional methods, but simply sidestepping to bioplastics in their current form is still far and away from solving the overall issue of plastic waste. The choices made right now will define the next decade. Are we going to choose to sidestep the problem with a little-by-little improvement or are we going to chase a total re-evaluation of the single-use model, or at least a plastic-free, entirely compostable alternative? The latter two is where our heart lies, and we’ll tell you why...

Please, tell me the alternative

The ultimate alternative is choosing reusable which is also biodegradable. While this isn’t always an option (yet - we’re ambitious it will be soon) for every kind of product, it is a fantastically high bar to aim for!

For packaging, there are numerous companies out there that produce totally plant-based and 100% compostable options that aren’t bioplastic and do not encounter the same problems as plastics. They use sugarcane, coconuts, corn-starch, plant-based paper and even mushrooms 🍄! They have been used for anything from egg casings to replacements for polystyrene (a material so unsustainable you wouldn't believe 😱).

There are numerous companies across the UK and beyond who are spending time developing options like this. If you follow our Instagram 📷 (follow us @choosetorelove) you may have seen in one of our good news, Sustainable Scoop, stories, eco brand ‘Choose’ have developed the world's first 100% biodegradable replacement for plastic bottles and Saltwater Brewery created edible six pack rings for their beer cans which actually feed marine life if they wind up in the ocean. Even from a quick search, we discovered companies like Apeel who create plant-based protection for produce items, replacing plastic wrap. There are options out there.

For products where compostable options are unsuitable, there are reusable alternatives too (which I would argue is even better in most cases). Non-plant based isn’t always unsustainable - materials like glass, steel and silicone can be extremely durable, highly recyclable alternatives to single-use. They are by no means biodegradable, but they do not let off harmful chemicals if they don’t make their way to recycling centres after their much more durable, long-lasting use.

How can we conclude?

On the whole, bioplastics present some vast improvements on how traditional plastics are manufactured. However, falling for their headline capturing advantages could prove detrimental to the future of sustainable packaging and derail the momentum of the reuse revolution. Perhaps ‘reusable' and 'compostable’ are the words we should be looking for in truly sustainable packaging, as biodegradable has become somewhat tainted with ifs, buts and maybes. Ultimately until bioplastics further studied they should not be considered as a long-term alternative but simply a way to eliminate fossil fuels from plastic packaging in the short-term. If bioplastics are considered the future, long-term, they risk becoming a scandalous sidestep from current methods that continues the promotion of single-use consumption. One that while eliminating a large issue, does not ‘reinvent the wheel’ in battling the plastic problem. We feel now is the time to choose something better. Eliminating single-use packaging by trialling reusable methods, or when that is not available, choosing methods which are completely 💯, throw it in your compost bin, compostable. We’ll just have to wait and see.

 

Discover our range of compostable, biodegradable and otherwise reusable alternatives to make your home more eco today - we offer sustainable, vegan replacements for plastic toothbrushes, straws, cling film, and loads more! Oh, and don't forget to follow us on Instagram @choosetorelove to keep up to date with all our upcoming eco swaps - including compostable coconut scourers, coming next week - you heard it here first! 🥥🥥

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