The hidden environmental impacts of bioplastics and what we can do about it
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Bioplastics have been heralded as our one-stop pathway to reducing global plastic pollution and production levels. It has been labeled as eco-friendly, but does it really live up to the hype?
Today, we produce about 300 million tonnes of plastic waste every year. That's nearly equivalent to the weight of the entire human population and at least 14 million tons of it ends up in the ocean each year.
Bioplastic alternatives are presented as the solution! Made from 20 percent or more renewable resources, the claimed advantages of bioplastics are the following: reduced use of fossil fuel resources, a reduction in carbon footprint, and faster decomposition. It is also less toxic, containing no traces of bisphenol A (BPA). Unlike traditional plastics that can take 1,000 years or more to decompose, many ‘bioplastics’ claim to break down much faster or even completely – without leaving any nasty chemicals behind.
What is bioplastic?
Bioplastics consist of natural polymers called ‘biomass’ from agricultural, cellulose or potato, sugar cane, and corn starch waste. These materials are degradable, and also have the resistance and versatility of plastic. While packaging that decomposes seems like a perfect solution, it is important to consider the environmental impacts of creating – or rather, growing – the raw materials needed to create bioplastic.
Let’s first clarify some common terms that are often used interchangeably in the literature surrounding bioplastics:
Degradable – All plastic is degradable, even traditional plastic, but just because it can be broken down into tiny fragments or powder does not mean the materials will ever return to nature. Microplastic is a big part of the problem. It’s in our water, it’s in the ocean, it’s in the animals, in the air, even in space and it's here to stay!
Biodegradable – Biodegradable plastic can be broken down completely into water, carbon dioxide and can be composted by microorganisms under the right conditions. “Biodegradable” implies that the decomposition happens in weeks to months.
Compostable – Compostable plastic will biodegrade in a compost site (at home or in an industrial compost) with the help of human intervention. Microorganisms break it down into carbon dioxide, water, inorganic compounds and leave no toxic residue.
While bioplastics are generally considered to be more eco-friendly when studied in-depth, it’s looking like this may not always be the case.
One study, from 2010, compared traditional plastic and four different bioplastics. It was discovered that, despite the eco-friendly appearance of bioplastic, it actually resulted in greater amounts of pollutants due to the fertilizers and pesticides used in the growth process, this includes the chemical processing required to turn the organic materials into plastic. The bioplastics also contributed to more ozone depletion than traditional plastic and required more agricultural land use (equalling more possible deforestation).
So the question remains - what can we do and what should we be choosing?
It’s important to remember that everything that is compostable is biodegradable, but not everything that is biodegradable is compostable. When we take everything into account, compostable resources will always win. Why? A compostable product will turn into humus, also called usable compost rich in nutrients. It makes a great natural fertilizer.
The main difference between compostable and biodegradable packaging is the timeframe needed to decompose and the amount of toxic residue left behind.
Biodegradable plastics can be either plant or petroleum-based and contain additional micro-organisms that help to slowly break down the material into smaller pieces. It’s important to note that many biodegradable plastics are still made from petroleum. Although biodegradable plastics can decompose, the resulting byproducts can contaminate the soil, therefore they cannot be placed into traditional compost. Instead, they generally require processing in specialized facilities, which sadly are not yet available in many areas or countries. When disposed of in a traditional landfill, the soil, or the ocean, biodegradable plastics generally decompose no faster than traditional plastic.
Essentially it’s not a sustainable change, more drastic measures are required.
Compostable plastic, when exposed to the right mixture of oxygen, moisture, and heat, breaks down into natural, non-toxic elements that can help to promote healthy soil. While some compostable plastics can be placed in home compost, most require a high-temperature industrial facility to decompose fully and successfully.
For bioplastic to be officially certified as compostable, it must decompose at the same speed as organic matter, which is typically within 3-6 months.
Why is this important? Because most bioplastic is not compostable.
The future is compostable
Home compostable packaging means that the materials can be placed in a home compost bin to decompose into nutrient-rich soil within a certain period of time.
Our ecosystem is under immense pressure and composting is one way in which we can begin to restore some balance. Composting is beneficial for our soil, plant life, and animal life.
Palm Leaf - the solution to plastic pollution
Our plant-based tableware and cutlery are 100% compostable. Made fron naturally fallen palm leaves, they are certified USDA Biobased product 100% and they will break down fully in your own compost turning into rich nutrient compost.
What better is that products made from palm leaf take nothing from the earth. In the absence of home compost bins, palm leaf plates can be disposed of in regular trash or food waste where they will decompose naturally in a landfill.
We've made it easy for you to swap your single-use plastic to sustainable, convenient, easy-to-use options!
When it comes to the bioplastic conversation, clarity is key. Just because something has the word ‘bio’ in it, does not mean that it’s friendly or beneficial in the battle to fight plastic waste and pollution. If you're truly wanting to make an impact, compostable packaging and products are key. In order to make a real difference choose products created from compostable and sustainable materials.
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