4 Reasons Why Bioplastics Won’t Solve our Plastic Problem

The search for a sustainable replacement for single-use plastic continues as the pollution crisis rises. Bioplastics have gained popularity as a supposed solution, but are they really the answer to our problem?

Almost 9 million tons of plastic enter our oceans each year. And since only 9% of plastics get recycled, what doesn’t end up in our environment sits in our landfills, where they can take hundreds of years to decompose. 

Some say that bioplastics could solve our plastic pollution problem, but as it turns out, they aren’t as eco-friendly as we think.

What are bioplastics?

Bioplastics are made from renewable materials, while traditional plastic is made from nonrenewable sources like petroleum. 

They’re considered more sustainable than traditional plastics, but studies show that bioplastics may not be the answer to our plastic crisis after all. 

There are two main types of bioplastics: those made from renewable resources and those that are biodegradable. 

Bioplastics from renewable resources are typically made from corn, sugarcane, and potatoes. Meanwhile, biodegradable bioplastics are made from materials like starch, cellulose, and algae.

While bioplastics are often marked as a more sustainable option, it’s important to note that they are not without their environmental impact.

The production of bioplastics can still result in significant greenhouse gas emissions. It also has limited recycling options, requires specific conditions to break down properly, and can leave microplastics behind after degrading. 

Sustainability terms to know

Biodegradable – Biodegradable refers to materials that microorganisms, like bacteria and fungi, can naturally break down into simpler compounds like water, carbon dioxide, and biomass under the right conditions.

It’s often thought that biodegradable means that the material will break down in weeks to months. But, unfortunately, materials like plastic can take years to degrade.

This is why not all biodegradable materials are necessarily sustainable or eco-friendly.

Compostable – Compostable refers to materials that can break down into natural, non-toxic substances in a compost site. Organic materials are broken down by microorganisms into carbon dioxide, water, inorganic compounds, and biomass without leaving toxic residue.

Biodegradable products aren’t always compostable. How environmentally friendly a product or plastic is depends on manufacturing and disposal.

Learn More: Compostable versus Biodegradable: What’s the difference?

Hand holding a single-use plastic fork under water, bioplastics

Types of bioplastic

Bioplastics are commonly used in single-use products such as straws, bags, bottles, and containers. It’s also common in packaging, piping, and phone cases. 

An average of 2.4 million metric tons of bioplastic are produced yearly, which is roughly 19% of total plastic production capacity. 

PLA (polyactic acid)

PLA is a biodegradable thermoplastic often made from renewable resources like corn starch, sugarcane, and cassava root. Many call it a “carbon-neutral” plastic because it comes from renewable, carbon-absorbing plants.

This kind of bioplastic is relatively stiff, brittle, and has low heat resistance. It will begin to degrade if exposed to high temperatures or moisture while in storage.

It is often mistaken for polyethylene, polystyrene, or polypropylene, which are not biodegradable. More often than not, PLA ends up in the landfill as consumers and compost facilities alike can’t tell it apart from traditional plastics.

PLA is most often used for food containers and single-use cutlery.

PHA (polyhydroxyalkanoate)

PHA is a biopolymer made by microorganisms, sometimes genetically engineered. This kind of bioplastic is made from renewable resources such as vegetable oils, sugars, and starches. 

Due to its strength and flexibility, it’s often used to make sutures, slings, bone plates, and skin substitutes. PHA can also be manufactured for single-use food containers and packaging.

Learn More: The Single-Use Plastic Ban Breakdown

Single-use plastic water bottle discarded on beach

4 reasons why bioplastics aren’t actually eco-friendly

Bioplastics are marketed as a more eco-friendly alternative to traditional plastic. But upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that bioplastics are not the cure-all they are often made out to be.

1. Bioplastics contribute to our microplastic problem

Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic less than 5 millimetres in size. These tiny particles accumulate in the environment, where they can be ingested by wildlife and marine life. After entering our food chain, it is then consumed by us. 

These pollutants spread worldwide in our freshwater, atmosphere, soil, oceans, seafood, and even in bottled water. On average, we eat about 5 grams of microplastic weekly, which is roughly the weight of a credit card. Scientists are still unsure how these particles will affect human health.

In order to decompose, most bioplastics need a high-temperature composting facility to break down. Because very few cities have this kind of facility, this results in bioplastics going to landfill where, without oxygen, they can release methane gas.

Our natural environment is too unpredictable for the conditions needed to degrade bioplastics. They need proper temperature (high heat), humidity, and microorganisms to begin the process.

If these specific conditions are not met, bioplastics have the same longevity as traditional plastics and become trash. And through the effects of time, waves, sunlight, and degradation, bioplastic waste will eventually turn into microplastics.

Rows of plastic bottles, bioplastics won't degrade in landfills fact

2. Bioplastics have limited recycling options

Not all bioplastics are alike. While some can be recycled, others have limited options.

We can easily recycle traditional plastics using established infrastructure and processes, but bioplastics are another story.

Bioplastics have limited recycling options and generally require separate collection, sorting, and processes to be recycled effectively.

Many bioplastics aren’t compatible with existing recycling streams and can contaminate the recycling process. When this happens, all contaminated plastic must be sent to landfill.

Their limited and difficult recycling options make bioplastics less sustainable and eco-friendly. In instances where bioplastics can’t be recycled, they become as dangerous to our planet as traditional plastics.

Learn More: Composting versus Recycling: Which is better?

3. They require large amounts of resources to produce

The production of bioplastics can have a significant environmental impact, especially when we look at the use of land and resources.

Bioplastics are typically made from plant-based materials, such as corn, sugarcane, or potatoes. These resources are then converted into polymers that can be used to make plastic-like products.

While this sounds great, production can require a significant amount of land, water, energy, and chemicals.

For example, the cultivation of corn for bioplastics requires large amounts of fertilizer, pesticides, and water, which competes with food production and land use.

Following cultivation, the processing and conversion of plant-based materials into bioplastics can also require significant amounts of energy and chemicals.

Although bioplastics may be made from renewable, plant-based materials, their environmental impact can still be substantial at every stage of their lifecycle, ranging from production to disposal.

Bioplastics grocery bag filled with apples

Could these renewable sources compete with food production?

Bioplastics are often made from corn, sugarcane, and potatoes, three important food staples in many parts of the world.

Using these crops for bioplastics could create competition between those harvesting for food and those harvesting for plastic production.

If competition were to happen, this could potentially lead to food shortages or an increase in food prices. 

4. Bioplastics generate significant greenhouse gas emissions

Bioplastics are often marketed as a more sustainable and environmentally-friendly alternative to traditional plastics. However, their production can still result in significant greenhouse gas emissions.

Cultivating crops like corn, sugarcane, and potatoes requires large amounts of energy, water, and other resources to grow, harvest, and process them. This includes the use of fertilizers, pesticides, and other chemicals that can pollute the surrounding environment.

In addition, the process of converting these crops into bioplastics often requires energy-intensive processing techniques that involve the use of fossil fuels and other non-renewable energy sources, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions.

For example, PLA is one of the most commonly used bioplastics and is often made from sugarcane. The production of 1 kilogram of PLA requires around 1.6 kilograms of sugar. 

The energy used to produce sugarcane results in the emission of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide. Every kilogram of sugar results in roughly 3.2 kilograms of greenhouse gas emissions.

The sugarcane is then converted into PLA, which requires large amounts of energy and resources.

compostable takeout packaging

Eco-friendly alternatives to plastic and bioplastic

An excellent alternative to bioplastics is wood for single-use products like cutlery, skewers, and chopsticks. And sugarcane fibre is a biodegradable and compostable alternative for takeout containers. 

Wood and sugarcane fibre are renewable resources that can be harvested and regrown sustainably. Wood products can also be Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified, which verifies that it was responsibly sourced.

Another benefit of using wood and sugarcane fibre as alternatives to bioplastics is that they are 100% biodegradable and compostable. 

When wood products are left to decompose in the environment, they break down naturally into organic materials like carbon dioxide and water. And it only takes approximately 180 days to fully degrade.

On the other hand, sugarcane fibre takes between 30 and 90 days to decompose, leaving no trace behind.

Using wood and sugarcane fibre products can also help to sequester carbon, as trees absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as they grow.

Learn More: 5 Innovative Sustainable Products for Restaurants

Ready to make the switch?

Time’s up on single-use plastic. If you’re ready to make the move to eco-friendly single-use products, Origin Sustainables is happy to help.

We’re here to encourage you to care for our planet – one takeout meal at a time.

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