Eco-Friendly Gifts Blog: Bioplastic Vs Plastic
Alternatives to traditional plastics such as PET and PE are becoming increasingly high in demand. It's largely due to the mounting evidence that conventional plastic is damaging the environment, on a scale never seen before.
As well as being damaging to the environment that we, and many other species, live in, manufacturing fossil fuel based plastics are contributing to the climate crisis.
In this blog, we are going to look at what plastics made from renewable resources bring to the table. Are they all they're cracked up to be? We will assess the advocacy for bioplastics, as well as the issues associated with them.
What are bioplastics?
Bioplastics, according to the definitions laid out by EU Bioplastics, are plastic polymers that are produced from biobased renewable resources. They also include biodegradable plastics as bioplastics, but there are contradictory definitions from different sources that say otherwise.
Conventional plastic is produced from non renewable fossil fuels, rendering it unsustainable. This is because at one point in time, potentially in our life span, fossil fuels will run out. This includes gas, oil and coal.
Common bioplastics include PLA, PBS and PHA.
Biobased vs biodegradable
PLA, or polylactic acid, is a biobased biodegradable bioplastic. This means it is produced from biobased matter such as corn starch, cassava and sugar. Primarily in the western world, PLA is manufactured from corn starch. PLA is also biodegradable, meaning it can:
"Break down into biomass, CO2 and water, aided by the use of microorganisms".
However, just because a material is biobased, does not mean it is biodegradable.
We can look at this chart from EU bioplastics to see this.
The aforementioned example of PLA sits in the top right group, which consists of biobased biodegradable bioplastics.
The group below it which includes PBAT and PCL, can be categorised as fossil based biodegradable plastics. This group contains plastics that are produced from the same raw materials as conventional plastic, such as petroleum.
What's the problem with conventional plastic?
Conventional plastic can be categorised as fossil fuel based non biodegradable plastic. As unsustainable materials go, conventional plastic such as PET is the king. As it builds up in the environment due to the fact it can't biodegrade, plastic pollution grows and grows.
Plastic pollution is severely impacting the lives of marine creatures all over the globe, with dwindling populations of several species as a result. Marine creatures mistake floating plastic debris for food, and ingest the floating chunks. This can be lethal, and often is.
Recycling plastic is also a huge problem around the world. It's is confusing for many of us, as there is no consistency of recycling regulations at a national scale. Only 9% of all plastic ever created has been recycled. This leaves the other 91% either incinerated, in landfill, or in the natural environment.
Different councils have different methods of attempting to recycle plastic, and which plastics can be recycled. Even if all this was sorted out, creating a simple, clear and effective method for recycling conventional plastics, there is no guarantee that recycling will actually get recycled.
Every piece of plastic exported to china for recycling, from many western countries, was and is automatically classed as recycled as soon as the waste leaves the country. Every piece of exported plastic sent to be recycled counted towards recycling targets.
This is all great, until reality catches up with the fact that, unsurprisingly, not all the waste was getting recycled in China. This is because exported waste contained a lot of plastic that wasn't recyclable, so it was either incinerate it or send it to landfill.
Since the national sword programme was put in place, China now only accepts batches of plastic that are 99.5% pure.
Where does the waste go to now it can't go to China? Usually poorer countries, several of which are in Southeast Asia such as Vietnam and Malaysia.
Where will the continuing surge of plastic waste be sent now? We could find out in just a few years, if landfills across the world are stretched to be at breaking point.
How can bioplastics influence plastic pollution?
Let's use PLA as an example, to show how bioplastics could put a massive dent in the plastic pollution crisis.
To start with though, let's address that just because PLA is biodegradable, it does not mean it will biodegrade in landfill within a set time frame.
As stated in the definition, biodegradable bioplastics break down with the presence of microorganisms. In landfill, microorganisms are not necessarily present. This is due to landfills potentially being anaerobic, meaning no oxygen is present. With some microorganisms able to operate under this lack of oxygen, some are not.
In the process of it breaking down in select cases, studies have shown it to release emissions which contribute to climate crisis.
So if you can't throw away PLA and other biodegradable plastics, what can you do? The answer lies with another quality found in bioplastics: compostability.
Compatibility is defined as:
"biodegradation under set conditions, in a set time frame, to form compost".
The most common example of composting is what we all think of as the compost bin in the garden. If no garden is present, they can be found in allotments or home composting bins.
If you were to put say, a 'compostable' cup made from PLA into a home compost bin, it is likely to break down, but not within a set time frame.
Time is where the key difference between biodegradability and compostability lies.
Biodegradation has no time limit, whereas composting does.
So a 'biodegradable' cup could technically still be biodegradable, even it it took 1,000 years to break down. While the bioplastic is still present in the environment, it continues to pose risks to wildlife. In this sense, a biodegradable cup is no better than a non biodegradable cup, if it injures or kills an animal through ingestion.
This is why it's so important for bioplastics to be compostable as well as biodegradable. Being compostable ensures the bioplastic will biodegrade fully within a set time frame, and this is what can make a difference in the fight against plastic pollution.
To make things a bit more complicated, there are two different types of composting. This is where large companies have taken advantage of the fact, that the consumer doesn't know there are different types of composting. A PLA cup advertised as compostable, is what's known as industrially compostable.
The other type of composting is home composting, which is what happens in the home compost setting. Home composting, generally, is the process of food waste breaking down into compost.
Industrial composting is carried out in controlled environments, in industrial composting plants. In these composting plants are higher temperatures, and other controlled factors including Nitrogen ratio, and moisture levels.
PLA needs to be industrially composted, for it to compost within the set time frame. The infographic below shows the key differences between the two types of composting.
In order to access industrial composting, you can use our free developed post back scheme, LFHP Zero.
We have developed LFHP Zero to make sure every compostable item in our selection of gifts can be composted fully, with zero waste going to landfill.
As a business, we take it upon ourselves to ensure responsible disposal for all our compostable items. We believe it is wrong to ask someone to pay for non harmful disposal, and think it's crazy that the topic is even up for debate.
Look to the future
There is a new breed of bioplastics that degrade in the natural environment.
Compostable bioplastics are currently the most advanced alternatives to non biodegradable plastics in an accessible price range for manufacturers and consumers.
The price is dropping all the time, and soon it will easily be able to compete with conventional plastics if the trends continue.
A new development is working on bioplastics that DO biodegrade naturally in marine environments and landfills. PHAs are offering a new hope in the quest for scalable and economically viable solutions to answer the plastic pollution crisis.
If we continue to raise awareness of the dangers conventional plastic presents to our lives, and the lives of other species on our planet, we can solve the problems that plastic pollution poses.
Gifts For Environmentalists
We set out to create gifts for environmentalists both in general, as well as covering several different niches.
Our gifts for environmentalists include eco festival survival kits, picnic hampers and pampering gift sets.
You can read more about bioplastics, and the ever changing world of sustainable developments, by subscribing to our email list at the bottom of the page.