WTF are Bio-plastics? - Bio-plastics Explained

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When we talk about ‘eco’ products we hear the term bioplastics thrown around a lot (pun totally intended), but what does it actually mean?

Standard plastic is created using petroleum. Bioplastic is a type of biodegradable plastic made from biological ingredients, such as corn starch or woodchips instead. Sounds great, right?

Well, bioplastic has come to be used as a catch all term for anything that doesn’t fully use petroleum sources, even if most of the plastic material used still relies on fossil fuels. Because of this, not all bioplastics are biodegradable.

There are different types of bioplastics, which can be separated into three main groups:

Bio-based Plastics: These use bio polyesters like polyethylene (PE) and are made from biological or agricultural sources.

Bio-based and Biodegradable Plastics: This is probably what we most commonly think of when we hear the term bioplastics. These use materials like polybutylene succinate (PBS) and they break down in compost facilities.

Fossil-based Biodegradable Plastics: These use materials like PCL (Polycaprolactone (PCL) is a biodegradable polyester) and biodegrade.

Plastic will degrade over time. But, even Dynamo couldn’t make them disappear entirely, they just become microplastics. Biodegradable means that the material can break down fully, into carbon dioxide, water, or compost, but, even if a bioplastic is biodegradable, it may not be bio-based. Bio-based means that the material is made using plants.

The main types of bioplastics are, PLA and PHA. PLA (poyactic acid) are usually made from the sugars in corn starch, sugarcane, or cassava. It is biodegradable, carbon neutral and edible. PHA (polyhydroxyalkanoate) is made by microorganisms that produce plastic from organic materials. It is biodegradable and does not harm living tissue, so is often used for medical procedures and sometimes in food packaging.

An important point to remember is that just because a product is made from bioplastic doesn’t mean it’s eco-friendly. For example, PLA (polylactic acid) is a bioplastic used to make shopping bags and cups. It is recyclable and biodegradable, however that doesn’t mean that it’s good for the environment. In order to biodegrade, PLA needs industrial composting conditions at a specific temperature. So, when PLA ends up in the sea it does not biodegrade at all.

There are some clear advantages of using bioplastics, for example they use less petroleum oil, and generally bioplastics have a smaller carbon footprint than traditional plastic. They are also considered safer for food use. However, the production of bioplastics may not be eco-friendly, and the impact on the global ecosystem is questionable, as it could raise the pressure on arable land.

While the use of bioplastic appears to offer a ‘greener’ alternative, they are still plastics. The best way to tackle the problem of plastic is simply to use less plastic. Rather than switch plastic for bioplastic we should look to use alternative materials when possible.

Here are our top tips when dealing with bioplastic:

1)     Check if the bioplastic is biodegradable

2)     Check the type of bioplastic

3)     Check whether an alternative material could be used instead of bioplastic

4)     Still confused? Speak to us!

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