10 reasons to avoid bioplastics

Despite being considered “eco-friendly,” bioplastics might be causing more problems than they solve.  Below are 10 reasons to avoid bioplastics. Each one based on scientific research. But first let’s get to know these materials, shall we?

 

Bioplastics are plastics made from plants instead of fossil fuels.  The two most common and general types of bioplastics are PLAs (which are made from sugars) and PHAs (which are made from microorganisms that are fed plant-based oils).  

 

Bioplastics are often described by manufacturers as “compostable”.  Compostable means it’ll breakdown in a compost at the same rate as other organic material (i.e., food scraps) without any special conditions.  And compostable means they won’t leave any toxins behind. Sometimes bioplastics are described as “biodegradable”. Biodegradable means something will breakdown eventually in the right conditions, but not necessarily in a traditional compost system.

 

Compared to regular plastic, having an alternative like bioplastics that won’t biodegrade into toxins is a huge improvement.  Having an alternative that’s not made from fossil fuels is also a big improvement! The potential to compost food scraps and it’s packaging in the same bin could help cut tons of waste.  And the potential to make bioplastics from organic waste (rather than crops) is also an amazing promise that some companies are working on.

 

With all this good news, lots of businesses have jumped on the bioplastics bandwagon.  Globally, the bioplastics market was worth $17 billion dollars in 2017 and produced over 2 million tons of bioplastic (see this report for details).  Bioplastics are showing up in grocery store aisles, as cups, straws, forks, product packaging, doggie bags, mailers, and more!

Bioplastics are showing up as packaging everywhere.
Bioplastic candy wrapper

But the potential of bioplastics to solve our trash problem isn’t happening.  Right now, bioplastics are creating a slew of problems instead of solving them.

 

Here are 10 reasons that bioplastics are not a solution to plastic pollution.

 

  1. Not always made from plants

To be called a bioplastic, it only needs to contain a minimum of 20% renewable material (i.e, plant-based).  So this means that some could have as much as 80% petroleum-based materials. That means they won’t compost as promised and they create the same plastic pollution problems as regular plastic.  If these bioplastics end up in composts, they have the potential to contaminate organic material.

 

2. Their production is more polluting

One2010 study found that the production of bioplastics results in more pollution than the production of traditional plastics.  This increased pollution comes from the agricultural processes to grow the crops that become bioplastics. Creating bioplastics also led to more ozone depletion and required more land to create than traditional plastics.

 

3. Some have carcinogens

Although they don’t contain BPA (a chemical found in regular plastics that may cause health problems for humans), some bioplastics are associated with increased carcinogens.  The same 2010 study found that bioplastics made with fossil fuels (these are called B-PET plastics) had the highest impact on “carcinogenic health hazards” across its life cycle. 

 

4. They increase pressure on our lands

In order to produce most bioplastics, crops have to be grown.  This creates more demand for farmland. In order to feed the planet without destroying it, we’ll have to take a hard look at how we use our land.  Using land to create packaging instead of food probably doesn’t make a lot of sense.  

 

5. Won’t compost at home

They won’t compost in your yard or worm bin.  Home composting is a super green way to cut waste on lots of levels.  You can turn those organics back into soil. You don’t need any transportation to move them from your house to a facility.  It’s cheap (or even free) to do at home. But bioplastics won’t compost at home. They have to be sent away and processed like all other trash.

 

6. Hard to compost anywhere

Very few cities have facilities to compost bioplastics – i.e., industrial composting facilities.  An industrial composting facility allows “materials to reach 140 degrees F for 10 consecutive days”, according to this report. Although the exact number of facilities that can achieve these conditions isn’t easy to know, there aren’t many.  

 

And even among those facilities that do exist, many of them don’t want any bioplastics because they take longer to breakdown than other materials.  This slows down composting and costs facilities more money. Fastcompany.com reports that less than 90 cities in the US accept compostable packaging.  

 

7. They can contaminate recycling.  

Folks get confused about what to do with their bioplastics, and so they often end up in the recycle bin.  Then they get mixed in with traditional plastics at the recycling plant since they’re hard to tell apart. As a result, our cities can accidentally send loads of traditional plastic that are contaminated with bioplastics to plastic recyclers.  When plastic recyclers see the contamination, they start to reject our entire plastic loads. This puts a major strain on our ability to recycle any plastic. And it’s already become a challenge to recycle traditional plastics across the US.

Bioplastics can contaminate our recycling.
Bioplastics can contaminate our recycling.

8. They release methane

When bioplastics end up in landfills, which is where most of them end up, they release methane.  Methane is a super powerful greenhouse gas.

 

9. They won’t biodegrade on their own

When bioplastics like PLA end up in the ocean or forests or meadows or streams, they won’t biodegrade.  Instead, they become another source of litter, just like traditional plastics.

 

10. Still single-use

Here’s the biggest problem of all: they promote a single-use mentality.  Folks see bioplastics as an eco-friendly single-use option. The problem is that there’s no such thing as eco-friendly single-use.  To create anything that will only get used once and then discarded is wasteful. Of course, in some situations single-use is the only option or the best option, like medical settings.  But single-use plastics should be an exception for certain situations, rather than the norm for everything we consume and use.  

 

We need to switch from a single-use mentality to a reusable mentality.  We need to recognize that the world has finite resources. All of these resources should be conserved and protected as much as possible.

 

This isn’t to say that bioplastics are worthless.  If we had better systems in place for capturing and composting bioplastics, and more efficient, less polluting ways of creating bioplastics, that would be awesome.  Bioplastics have the potential to fill an important need in plastics with renewable resources.

 

But at this point in time, with our current resources, bioplastics don’t solve all our problems.  And they have lots of issues that need to be addressed.  

 

The main problem for us to solve is to reduce our dependence on single-use plastic as much as possible.  Bioplastics don’t get us any closer.

 

Do you have thoughts on bioplastics?  I’d love to hear in the comments below!

Thanks for reading and for all that you do for the planet,

Liz

P.S. Want more nitty-gritty info on bioplastics?  Check out my sources:

https://blogs.ei.columbia.edu/2017/12/13/the-truth-about-bioplastics/ 

https://www.fastcompany.com/90393297/will-compostable-packaging-ever-be-able-to-solve-our-waste-problem 

http://ncrarecycles.org/2019/03/oregon-composters-push-back/ 

https://www.thebalancesmb.com/what-does-biodegradable-mean-2538213 

https://ilsr.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/state-of-composting-in-us.pdf

https://greenamerica.org/take-plastics-challenge/bioplastics-benefits-and-pitfalls