Bioplastics are known for being eco-friendly, but are they better for the environment than conventional plastics? We’re seeing more and more bioplastics in the promotional products industry so we thought we’d look more closely at the material.
On a global scale, we have produced over 9 billion tonnes of plastic since the 1950’s, and today only about 9 percent of plastic consumed gets recycled. Most of the plastic we consume either ends up in landfills or in our oceans. If plastic is not properly recycled, it can take over 500 years to decompose, while leaching toxic chemicals into the ground and harming wildlife.
Plastic garbage is found everywhere – on our streets and sidewalks, in our mountains and on our beaches. And thanks to runoff, much of this garbage ends up in our rivers and oceans. Studies show that plastic is found in the guts of more than 90% of the world’s sea birds and in the stomachs of more than half of the world’s sea turtles. At the rate at which plastic is accumulating, it’s predicted that the mass of plastic in the world’s oceans will exceed the mass of all the fish that live there by 2050.
What can we do about it?
Plastic has become one of our primary building materials because it’s durable and cost effective. It’s used across an array of industries, from construction and automobiles to furniture and toys. While it remains high in demand, research continues to show that using so much plastic has many negative effects on our environment. If we can’t slow the production of plastic, can we change the way it’s produced?
The term “bioplastics” is used to describe two separate things: First, bio-based plastics, which are plastics made partly from biological sources such as corn, bamboo, potatoes, or food waste. And second, bio-degradable plastics, which can be completely broken down by microbes in a reasonable timeframe, given specific conditions.
What does this mean? Not all bio-based plastics are biodegradable, and not all biodegradable plastics are bio-based. But both are considered bioplastics.
Is BioPlastic Better for the Environment?
At first glance, bioplastic seems like a better alternative to conventional plastic as it’s partly made from renewable resources and can be biodegradable – both good things for our environment. But in order to determine whether bioplastic is better for our environment than conventional plastic, we need to look at several factors for the entire lifespan of conventional plastics vs. bioplastics, including production, greenhouse gas emissions and recycling opportunities.
Production of Bioplastics
While bio-based plastics are partly made from renewable resources, it’s important to consider how the materials are produced. Many of the resources are also used for food production, and in an increasingly food-scarce world, many argue that these resources should be allocated for food production and not plastics. That said, The Institute for Bioplastics and biocomposites estimates that bio-based plastics currently use less than 0.02% of agricultural land, which indicates there’s no real competition with food production.
We’re also seeing a variety of products like biodegradable food containers being made from agricultural waste, reducing competition with food production and the amount of greenhouse gases emitted during waste disposal. Without another means to dispose of agricultural waste, many countries were burning it and therefore emitting carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere during the process. With new technology in place, we can now recycle this waste and create new products.
Here’s an example of a common plastic promotional product that is now being made from ‘wheat-based‘ plastics – The Wheat Malibu Sunglasses. When we look at the environmental claims associated with the product, the facts are laid out clearly without making vague claims like ‘eco or environmentally friendly’. (We’ll give them a pass on saying harvested wheat is sustainable ????).
Here are the facts listed:
- Made of wheat straw and polypropylene
- Composed of reclaimed stalks from wheat
- Less plastic used in the material
- Harvested wheat is renewable and sustainable
- No indication of extractable gluten in testing
- UV400 lenses provide 100% UVA and UVB protection
You can also click on the product page to see a 3rd Party Product Safety Report, something we love to see from our preferred supplier base. As sunglasses are very unlikely to end up in a blue box recycling program, this could be a good example of when to substitute for a bio-based material like this one instead of a traditional petroleum-based plastic.
A win for bioplastics.
A 2010 study from the University of Pittsburgh compared seven traditional plastics, four bioplastics and one made from both fossil fuel and renewable sources. The researchers determined that bioplastics production resulted in greater amounts of pollutants, due to the fertilizers and pesticides used in growing the crops and the chemical processing needed to turn organic material into plastic.
A win for conventional plastics.
Greenhouse Gases Over a Lifetime
While the 2010 University of Pittsburgh study shows greater pollution from bioplastics than conventional plastics during production, we need to look at the lifetime of the product to gain an accurate understanding of its overall carbon footprint.
About eight percent of the world’s oil is used to make plastic, and reducing this need is a major benefit of bioplastic. If plastic releases carbon once it’s discarded, as it degrades, bioplastics will add less carbon to the atmosphere because they’re simply returning the carbon the plants sucked up while growing, instead of releasing carbon that had previously been trapped underground in the form of oil. So, while bioplastics may pollute more during production, their overall greenhouse gas emissions are significantly lower than traditional plastics over their lifetime. In fact, a 2017 study determined that switching from traditional plastic to corn-based PLA would cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent.
A win for bioplastics.
End of Life Composting and Recycling
So far, the benefits of bioplastics seem to outweigh those of conventional plastics. The last piece we need to look at is end of life composting and recycling opportunities for bioplastic.
Depending on the type of polymer used to make it, discarded bioplastic must either be sent to a landfill, recycled, or sent to an industrial compost site.
Industrial composting or recycling is necessary to heat the bioplastic to a high enough temperature that allows microbes to break it down. Without that intense heat, bioplastics won’t degrade on their own in a meaningful timeframe, either in landfills or even your home compost heap. If they end up in marine environments, they’ll function similarly to petroleum-based plastic, breaking down into micro-sized pieces, lasting for decades, and presenting a danger to marine life.
While its widely assumed that all plastics can be recycled or composted, most cities don’t actually have recycling facilities for bioplastics. If bioplastics are sent to be recycled with your other household plastics, they may actually contaminate the other plastics and harm recycling infrastructure. For example, if bioplastic contaminates recycled PET (polyethylene terephthalate, the most common plastic, used for water and soda bottles), the entire lot could be rejected and end up in a landfill. This means even the plastic that could have been recycled would end up in the landfill. When bioplastics end up in landfills, they’re often deprived of oxygen, which causes them to release methane, a greenhouse gas 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
A win for conventional plastics.
At this point in time, it’s hard to say whether bioplastics are better for the environment than traditional plastics when all aspects of the life cycle are considered. That said, as our recycling infrastructures are improved and researchers around the world work to develop greener varieties and more efficient production processes, bioplastics do appear to be a promising alternative to conventional plastics.
We’re seeing more and more plant-based bio-polymers in our industry. Given the issues, we’re recommending that if the product is long lasting, durable and intended to be re-used, bioplastics are a good fit (think re-usable cutlery like our set below). If the product is a limited or one-use product, it’s best to stick to easy to recycle polymers like PET and Polypropylene.
Want to learn more, or want to start a project?