Plastic not so Fantastic: Bioplastics vs. Biodegradable Plastics
It's estimated that global plastic consumption levels are around the 150 million ton mark annually, and studies suggest that producing 1kg of common plastic requires 2kg of petroleum fossil fuels for energy and raw material – and releases about 6kg of CO2 into the atmosphere.If you needed any proof of the sheer quantity of plastic littering our planet, have a look at the Great Pacific Garabge Patch.
Obviously, the plastics industry is in dire need of a green makeover, and we need to stop consuming products that create large amounts of plastic waste. Luckily, change is happening with the creation of green plastic, also known as bioplastic.
But what does anyone really know about green plastics? And as consumers, what should we be looking for in our products?
What is Bioplastic?
Bioplastics, aka green plastics, are made from 100% renewable biomass sources like corn, potato or sugar cane, and are produced using environmentally friendly processes. In general, bioplastics share three common properties:
- They are biodegradable
- They are made from renewable materials
- They are produced using environmentally friendly processes
Because there many different materials and processes associated with producing green plastics, there are different ways to evaluate their level of "green". To evaluate how green a plastic is, scientist use these qualifiers:
- How fast can the plastic be re-integrated into the environment (i.e. biodegradation)?
- How quickly can the plastic's ingredients be created/ grown?
- How much pollution/waste is created in the production process?
Bioplastics vs. Biodegradable Plastics
Bioplastics aren't the same as biodegradable plastics. Bioplastics are made from natural materials, but look and act like regular plastics. They do not produce a net increase in CO2 when they degrade; because the plants used to create the bioplastic absorb the same amount of carbon dioxide in its plant state. Bioplastics produce 70% less greenhouse gasses when they degrade in landfills, and they can be composted quickly, in a matter of weeks in some cases, depending on the amount of heat and moisture added to the process.
Biodegradable plastics are made from traditional petroleum-based chemicals, but are engineered to break down more quickly. They contain fewer stabilizers and can decay faster than normal plastics given the right light, oxygen and moisture levels. While these kinds of plastics do break down, they leave a toxic residue behind, and cannot be composted.
The Bottom Line
Some skeptics argue against the overall benefits of bioplastics because they are sometimes produced using genetically modified organism (GMOs) and the crops used to produce the plastic take up valuable agricultural land.
Clearly there is no silver bullet solution to the problem of plastic, and ultimately it's up to you to make sure the plastics you choose are bioplastic or at least biodegradable. But, anything derived from a renewable resource is better than petroleum-based products. Look for packaging labelled "biodegradable" or "compostable", or look for plastic symbol #7 "Other" on containers to make sure it's a bioplastic. An even better solution is to simply reduce the amount of plastic you use on a daily basis. Use cloth bags over plastic, buy larger containers instead of small, individually packaged snacks or yogurts, and recycle as much as possible.