The Summer of Sustainability – What Are Bioplastics and Why Do They Matter?

Aug 21, 2020

Bioplastic. It’s a word that’s becoming much more common in our vernacular in recent years. The single-use plastics industry is constantly looking for new ways to be more sustainable, and integrating bioplastics into the industry is one of those ways. We started with recycled-content materials, but those materials will still end up in landfills at some point. We then moved on to bio-based materials, which are made completely or mostly out of renewable or biological materials. While a great step forward, bio-based materials aren’t necessarily biodegradable or compostable, and most likely will still end up sitting in landfills. Finally, we’ve reached bioplastics, which by definition are biodegradable, meaning they will break down to innocuous elements or materials. As bioplastics become more common in the single-use consumer products industry, it’s important for businesses to understand exactly what bioplastics are, and why they’re important.

The written definition of bioplastic is a type of biodegradable plastic derived from biological substances rather than petroleum. The key word here is biodegradable. Other materials that are labeled as bio-based or other phrases are not guaranteed to be biodegradable; they only indicate that a large portion of the materials used to make the product are biologically-based. It states nothing of the product’s end-of-life. Many bioplastics also qualify as compostable, meaning that the elements or compounds they break down into also contribute to and create a great nutrient-rich fertilizer with no ecotoxic effects and supports plant growth. This is a key difference between bioplastic products and bio-based products. This difference makes bioplastics the more planet-healthy option.

There are two bioplastics that currently dominate the industry: polylactic acids (PLAs) and polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs). The main differentiators between these two materials are their feedstocks and their compostabilities. PLAs are made from a corn starch or sugar cane base while PHAs are from a canola oil base. On the back end, PLAs must be composted in industrial or commercial facilities under specialized conditions, while PHAs can compost just about anywhere on Earth (including being able to biodegrade in both the oceans and landfills in many cases). The complexity of the compost conditions for PLAs is one of the largest limiting factors for the material, as it can be difficult to find facilities that will be able to compost them. PLAs also become brittle over long periods of time, giving them a shorter shelf life than products made from other materials. For PHAs, the novelty of the material is it’s greatest barrier. There is still much research to be done to scale up the industrial production of PHAs cost effectively.

Humans like convenience. We like not having to worry about our drink spilling from a sippy lid because we didn’t want a straw. Bioplastics allow us to have the convenience of a straw and lid without any of the environmental guilt associated with petroleum-based plastic products. As usage of single-use products and packaging continues to rise, we need to find ways to lessen the impact of these products on the planet. Making them from bioplastics is a start. Especially PHAs, which will break down nearly anywhere on Earth in a fairly short period of time. The single-use problem has truly been solved. The question is, are we ready and able to make the changes that we need to? Or will we let our planet and the wildlife that calls it home continue to suffer? It’s time for a change. It’s time to do the right thing. It’s time for the bioplastic future. 

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