The environmental friendliness of bioplastics is frequently praised, but do they live up to the hype?
Plastic is one of the biggest challenges we humans are facing at this time because plastic is everywhere be it land, rivers, or ocean disturbing the natural mechanism of the environment. Since the 1950s, the globe has created more than nine billion tonnes of plastic. With about 9 million additional tonnes entering the waters each year, 165 million tonnes of material have defiled our ocean. Since only around 9% of plastic is recycled, the majority of the remaining plastic either pollutes the environment or is left in landfills, where it can take up to 500 years for it to degrade while releasing hazardous chemicals into the soil.
Raw ingredients derived from petroleum have been used to make plastic till now. Some claim that bioplastics, which contain 20% or more renewable resources, could be the answer to the problem of plastic pollution. Reduced reliance on fossil fuel supplies, a smaller carbon impact, and quicker decomposition are some of the benefits of bioplastic that are frequently mentioned. Additionally, bioplastic is less hazardous and free of bisphenol A (BPA), a hormone disruptor that is frequently included in conventional plastics.
But does bioplastic decompose quicker than usual plastic? Are they biodegradable?
How Biodegradable are Bioplastics?
Since there is frequent misunderstanding while discussing bioplastics, let’s first define a few concepts.
Degradable – Degradable means anything that has the capability of breaking down into simple parts or say decomposing chemically or biologically. All plastic, including conventional plastic, is degradable, however just because it can be reduced to tiny pieces or powder does not mean the materials completely return to nature without concern. Traditional plastics with certain compounds decay more quickly. Plastic that is photodegradable degrades more easily in sunshine; plastic that is oxo-degradable degrades more swiftly under heat and light.
So bioplastics are degradable but are these 100% absorbed by nature like any parts of the plant like leaves, stems, bark, root, etc. is one thing we must check with the manufacturer to ensure it is true to its name – BIOPLASTIC.
Biodegradable – Bioplastics are not biodegradable simply because they won’t degrade in a landfill or in an ocean like paper despite being plant-based. Biodegradable means breaking down any substance/material completely into nature on its own without creating any side effects or disturbance. Hence always check with the manufacturer about the biodegradability of the bioplastic that you wish to buy.
Also if the plastic made from plants is biodegradable it needs no recycling unit. Do we send the plant leaves, bark, stems, etc. to a recyclable unit? Then why do we need a recycling unit for biodegradable plastic?
Recyclable – Like usual pet/HDPE plastic which is recyclable, bioplastic too is recyclable. However, there is a challenge as both bioplastic and usual plastic can not be recycled in one recycling machine hence it would become a challenge initially to find recycling units, and thereby chances are that bioplastic may land in oceans and land. But this does not mean that bioplastic is bad because bioplastic does not contain any petroleum ingredient and hence it will certainly reduce the pressure on fossil fuels. In other words, manufacturers and governments should come together to bring change in policy such that petroleum-based plastic is completely stopped and bioplastic is introduced in all plastic-consuming industries along with the setup of bioplastic recycling units in remote areas.
What is plastic?
Plastic is a polymer that is made up of oil/petroleum along with the use of chemicals with condensation to induce molecular bonding. Polymers can be naturally occurring while plastics are man-made. This means plastics are either 100% synthetic or partially synthetic and can be recycled, colored, reused and drawn into any shape.
Why is Bioplastic good?
Bioplastic is made using plant parts in place of petroleum derived ingredients (fossil fuels). Hence it will reduce impact on fossil fuels. This makes bioplastic a good substitute for present plastic where petroleum derived ingredients are part of it.
Is bioplastic biodegradable?
No, bioplastics are not biodegradable as they don’t break down into organic matter like leaves, stems, roots etc. on their own in 1-2 weeks to a few months.
Is bioplastic bad for oceans?
Yes, bioplastic can damage marine life the same as usual plastic does simply because bioplastic is not biodegradable and breaks down into tiny pieces which can pose the concerns of microplastic for aquatic life. Bioplastics too need to reach a recyclable unit.
Is bioplastic the solution to the plastic problem?
No, usual plastic or bioplastic both need a recycling unit as it can not return to nature on its own like organic matter – leaves, stems etc. However bioplastics certainly will make less carbon footprint because a lot of emissions are released to dig petroleum which is used in the making of the usual plastic.
Many manufacturers claim their bioplastic as biodegradable?
Yes, always check in detail with the manufacturer to ensure you are not carried away by the literal meaning of the word – biodegradable. Manufacturers can explain well the biodegradability process of the plastic.