The term ‘bioplastics’ is thrown around a lot when you search for plastic alternatives such as compostable or biodegradable plastic. But it’s important to understand what this term means and how you can reduce your environmental footprint by making such a choice.
Bioplastics is a term used for a range of plastic alternatives that are made from renewable sources such as organic materials. This means that these plastics are more sustainable and environmentally friendly than traditional plastics. Examples of bioplastics commonly used are biodegradable and compostable plastics.
What are Bioplastics?
Bioplastic is a broad term used for products such as compostable and biodegradable plastics, which provide a safer alternative to conventional plastics in terms of disposal and environmental footprint. Bioplastics are seen to be safer for the environment from manufacturing processes through to disposal methods.
The appeal of bioplastics is that they contain renewable materials – think corn starch, tapioca starch and others – which means that when disposed of correctly, they reduce waste. They are able to be either degraded or composted back into the earth.
Bioplastics are typically 100 per cent degradable (or compostable), versatile, sustainable and strong. The manufacturing process of bioplastics is also better for the environment: the process has a reduced carbon footprint, uses less energy and water and also produces less greenhouse emissions.
They also typically don’t contain any chemicals harmful to humans, wildlife, the sea or land (soil). When decomposed, they should return to a natural state, such as water, air, soil. Compostable plastics will completely decompose and biodegradable plastics will break down into smaller pieces, leaving behind a slight toxic residue.
What’s The Difference Between Bioplastics, Biodegradable Plastics and Compostable Plastics?
It’s important to understand that bioplastics is a blanket term for any plastic material produced from renewable biomass sources. This includes vegetable fats and oils, starch from vegetables such as corn, woodchips, sawdust and sugars.
Biodegradable and compostable plastics are types of bioplastics but have differences in makeup and methods of breakdown when disposed of. Both are good alternatives to traditional plastic, as they leave less impact on the environment.
How Are Biodegradable Plastic And Compostable Plastic Different?
The biggest difference between biodegradable plastic and compostable plastic is their make-up and disposal methods. Biodegradable plastics contain some conventional plastic materials and can leave behind toxic chemicals in the soil when breaking down.
Biodegradable also cannot be placed in a composter and compostable cannot be placed in landfill. They are not designed to be broken down in those ways. Biodegradable is for landfill and compostable is for a composter.
What Is Biodegradable Plastic?
Biodegradable plastic is a bioplastic, made from a mix of renewable materials and some traditional plastic components. This type of plastic takes less time than traditional plastic to break down, speeding up a process that takes centuries, to months or a couple of years.
Biodegradable plastic is designed with special microbes in the materials that will help it to break down faster. This means that a biodegradable plastic bag or other item may break down in mere months. It’s still classed as bio-based or a bioplastic due to the large amount of organic materials.
Unfortunately, biodegradable plastics still include toxic chemicals similar to conventional plastic, which can leave toxic sludge behind when decomposing. This type of plastic is made from materials such as the sugar from corn and sugarcane or other vegetable starches which are converted into polylactic acids.
You can read more about biodegradable plastics in this article.
What Is Compostable Plastic?
Compostable plastic is also a bio-based plastic yet is completely made from renewable materials. Compostable plastic alternatives are very popular due to their ability to break down into completely natural components in land, sea and air.
This type of plastic is made from organic components that are able to be broken down in a home composter, worm farm or at an industrial composting facility. There are also no toxic chemicals left behind from the decomposing process.
Compostable plastic is made from materials such as potato and corn starch, soy protein, lactic acid and cellulose. Essentially, any organic or renewable materials that can be turned into plastics. They must however, be disposed of in a composting environment or else they will not break down.
Are Bioplastics Good For The Environment?
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. Here are some of the top benefits of bioplastics for the environment:
- 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 Are Some Drawbacks For Bioplastics?
As with most products, there are some negative impacts of bioplastics – mostly for biodegradable plastics over compostable plastics. Some of these less appealing aspects include:
- Biodegradable plastics cannot be composted and would contaminate the whole pile.
- Compostable plastics cannot be disposed of in landfill and would contribute to landfill pollution.
- Biodegradable plastic leaves behind some toxic chemicals after breaking down in landfill.
- Biodegradable plastic will never completely break down (breaks down into small parts and leaves behind residue).
- Neither are as readily available as traditional plastics.
What Are Some Bioplastic Products?
Although not every current traditional plastic item is available in bioplastic alternatives, there are still many biodegradable and compostable plastic products on the market for numerous uses. It’s a global market, with people everywhere considering how to reduce their environmental impact.
Some of the most common uses for bioplastics include:
- Food packaging
- Shopping bags and carry bags
- Garbage and trash bags
- Toiletry packaging
- Tea bags
- Food service items
- Medical packaging.
Are There Other Bioplastics Not As Common?
Interestingly, there are three types of bioplastics – it’s just that compostable and biodegradable are the most commonly used and available. The three types include:
- Bio-based plastics – such as compostable. Made from completely natural/renewable materials.
- Bio-based and biodegradable plastics – containing some conventional plastic ingredients but also organic materials.
- Fossil-based but biodegradable – conventional plastic made with special microbes to break down faster.
As research continues into the best plastic alternatives, we are also seeing ingredients such as algae, coffee grounds and other types of cellulose becoming more popular materials for bioplastics.
Why Are Bioplastics Called Sustainable?
Sustainable plastics or materials are essentially those which maintain natural resources and don’t impact future generations meeting their needs. I.e. they don’t contribute to pollution, deplete important resources or impact wildlife, soil, sea or land.
For those looking for an alternative to traditional plastic, bioplastics are a great option. They are environmentally safe and sustainable from manufacturing processes to disposal methods. Their manufacturing processes should reduce greenhouse emissions, use less water and energy and reduce carbon footprint.
Their disposal methods should contribute little pollution and toxicity to the environment and should be able to return to the natural environment in land, sea or air.
However, compostable could be seen as the top choice, due to its ability to not only break down into natural components, but also leave behind zero toxicity.
It’s also safe for home composting and worm farms, producing excellent fertilizer for your garden.
Bioplastics such as biodegradable and compostable, are growing in popularity due to their lower environmental footprint and increasing accessibility for consumers. Being made from majority or completely of renewable materials, they provide an excellent alternative to traditional plastics.
Both biodegradable and compostable plastics rapidly reduce the time that traditional plastic takes to break down. Biodegradable plastic products can be disposed of in landfill and will break down in months rather than the decades or centuries it takes traditional plastic to break down.
However, they can’t be placed in composting facilities or worm farms and may leave behind toxic sludge as they decompose. Compostable plastic products are 100 per cent sustainable, non-toxic and renewable, breaking down into a completely natural state such as water, carbon dioxide or biomass when disposed of correctly. They can release methane which is a potent greenhouse gas if they are disposed of in landfill and they will not break down rapidly.
These bioplastics are very versatile and can be used for a broad range of applications, from food service items, food storage and trash bags to medical applications such as implants, drug delivery systems and orthopedic devices.
As research continues, the ingredients making up bioplastics will continue to increase. As demand increases, availability of such products will also increase and reduce in cost.
It’s important to understand which plastics you have at home and how to best dispose of them. When it comes to bio plastics, understand which type you have and how to best dispose of it. You may also consider a worm farm or home composter and you will be rewarded with nutrient-rich soil or fertilizer. Of course, this is for compostable plastics only.