With focus shifting toward plastic alternatives that reduce waste and toxicity for the environment, many people are interested in learning more about the different bioplastic alternatives on the market and which are the best options.
The best bioplastic alternatives on the market currently include polylactic acid (PLA) made from fermented plant starches and biodegradable plastic, made partially from renewable resources.
What Are Bioplastic Alternatives?
The term ‘bioplastics’ is used a lot when you search for plastic alternatives such as compostable or biodegradable plastic. Bioplastics is a term used for a range of plastic alternatives that are made from renewable sources such as organic materials. These plastics are more sustainable and environmentally friendly than traditional plastics.
Bioplastics are considered safer for the environment from their manufacturing process which uses less resources and produces lower emissions, through to their ability to be disposed of and return to natural matter.
Bioplastics are made from renewable materials such as corn starch, tapioca starch and others. This means that when they are disposed of correctly, they reduce waste. They are able to be either quickly broken down (when it comes to landfill disposal) or composted back into the earth.
What Is PLA?
Polylactic acid or PLA is being hailed as perhaps the most popular bioplastic currently on the market, due to its ability to be used widely as a plastic alternative. PLA is typically made from fermented food starch often from corn, sugarcane, sugar beet pulp or cassava and combined with lactic acid and cyclic di-ester lactide.
Being made from organic materials results in a compostable, renewable, sustainable and ethical plastic product. Contrary to thermoplastics (a lot of your typical plastics) which are petroleum-based, PLA is produced from raw materials. However, this doesn’t impact its main properties which are comparable to other plastics, making them a rapidly popular less impactful plastic for mindful consumers.
PLA is used for cold food service items such as cups, salad containers, deli posts, lids, bags (such as trash bags) and clear windows in sandwich boxes or bags and is transparent. PLA is also recognized as non-toxic which allows it to be utilized in medical environments such as medical implants, orthopedic devices and drug delivery systems.
Being manufactured from raw materials means that PLA can be composted either in a home composter or industrial composting facility and returned to its natural form. The manufacturing process is overall more sustainable and environmentally friendly than that of traditional plastics as no toxic fumes are released and it uses less electricity and water.
What Is CPLA?
In the same family as PLA is crystallized PLA. This form of PLA is heat resistant and useful for food service items such as cutlery, takeaway food containers, coffee cup lids and soup containers. It is not transparent but often seen as white unless charcoal is added to create a black color.
What Are Some Other Compostable Alternatives?
In addition to PLA and CPLA, there are several other compostable plastics available – some not as accessible or as low in price as PLA. In a similar fashion to PLA, these are made from renewable or organic materials such as tapioca starch, soy protein, potato and cellulose.
Cellulose nanofibers can be found in wood waste and also coffee grounds. Coffee grounds have most recently been used to make transparent coffee cups and straws. Compostable plastic can also be made from seaweed blended with the polysaccharides found in seeds such as avocado, jackfruit and durian. They can also be manufactured from algae or wastewater byproducts which contain polysaccharides (mainly starch-based, proteins and alternative carbon sources).
Many of these materials aren’t yet as popular as cornstarch for various reasons such as their limited applications, more complex manufacturing process and lower availability.
What Are Biodegradable Alternatives?
Bioplastics is a blanket term for any plastic material produced from renewable biomass sources, which also includes biodegradable plastics. Biodegradable plastic is made from a mix of renewable materials and some traditional plastic components, with materials such as the sugar from corn and sugarcane or other vegetable starches which are converted into polylactic acids.
Biodegradable plastic takes less time than traditional plastic to break down, speeding up a process that takes centuries, to months or a couple of years. This is due to the addition of special microbes in the materials that help it to break down faster. This means that a biodegradable plastic bag or other item may break down in mere months.
Although biodegradable plastic is classed as bio-based or a bioplastic due to the large amount of organic materials, these plastics still include toxic chemicals similar to conventional plastic, which can leave toxic sludge behind when decomposing.
What Are The Benefits Of Bioplastics?
There are many benefits when using bioplastics, particularly for the environment. Some of these benefits include:
- Bioplastics are typically 100 per cent degradable (or compostable)
- They are versatile, sustainable and strong
- The manufacturing process has a reduced carbon footprint, uses less energy and water and also produces less greenhouse emissions
- Bioplastics – excepting biodegradable – don’t contain harmful chemicals
- When decomposed (for compostable items) they will return to a natural state such as water, air or soil.
Compostable plastics will completely decompose and biodegradable plastics will break down into smaller pieces, leaving behind a slight toxic residue.
What Are The Negatives Of Bioplastics?
With the use of bioplastics becoming increasingly popular, however, along with all the positives for choosing bioplastics, there are some drawbacks to be aware of. These include:
- Bioplastics won’t decompose in landfill and contribute to the waste issue. Unless biodegradable, they must be placed into a composter or worm farm.
- The increase in demand for bioplastics creates competition for raw materials and food sources.
- Bioplastics can contaminate recycling streams as people aren’t aware of how to dispose of them correctly.
- Some confusion around compostable plastics can result in littering or people disposing of compostable items such as dog poop bags in the environment.
- Biodegradable plastic will leave behind a toxic residue in landfill and also can’t be composted and will contaminate the other waste if disposed of this way.
Which Bioplastic is Best?
Bioplastics are seen as being a great alternative for the environment when compared with conventional plastics, due to the lower environmental footprint left by manufacturing and disposal methods. When it comes to choosing the best alternative, it does depend on how you will dispose of the plastics.
Compostable can be seen as the best option due to its ability to break down into completely natural components when disposed of correctly.
Here are some of the top benefits of compostable plastics:
- Reduces contributions to landfill.
- Reduces toxicity left behind in landfill (compostable plastics leave behind none and biodegradable low amounts).
- Less greenhouse gas emissions during manufacturing.
- Low water and energy consumption during the manufacturing process.
- Safe for humans, animals, wildlife and the environment.
- Provide great fertilizer when composted (compostable plastics only).
What all this means, is that if you are willing to dispose of your compostable plastics in a home composter, industrial composting facility or a worm farm, then compostable plastic provides a great option for you.
However, if you would prefer to continue to dispose of your waste through landfill – i.e. general home bins or public bins – then you should choose biodegradable plastic alternatives.
It’s important that a deeper understanding of bioplastics is understood when looking at the best options for you. Understanding that bioplastic is a broad term that covers many plastic alternatives is key. Also knowing how you will dispose of the items will help to make your best decision.
Reading this article means that you are interested in reducing your waste, environmental footprint and making better choices. This is a great first step toward this goal! There are many bioplastic alternatives on the market, with PLA and CPLA being the most commonly used.
They are both compostable and compostable plastics are made from natural and renewable materials, meaning they can be completely decomposed into natural matter. This is a great move for the environment!
You can also be sure of some high-quality fertilizer through home composting or worm farms. With bioplastics being a term used for a range of plastic alternatives that are made from renewable sources such as organic materials, you can be sure these plastics are more sustainable and environmentally friendly than traditional plastics.
Their manufacturing process also uses less resources and produces lower emissions, through to their ability to be disposed of and return to natural matter. Biodegradable plastics are also another bioplastic, however, it is not able to be composted and will leave behind some toxic residue in a landfill environment.
When disposed of correctly, all bioplastics are a better, more sustainable and environmentally friendly option than traditional plastic.