Recently, I went to an event ‘The Case for Biobased Plastics’ hosted by start-up innovation hub Factory Berlin that was half informational evening around plastics, and half launch event for a new bioplastic product – the BE-O water bottle.
Nearly 100 people attended to learn about biobased plastics, which in itself was amazing. We had presentations and panel discussions from BE-O, Flustix, European Bioplastics, Cradle to Cradle e.V. and Circular Berlin regarding the product launched, plastic certifications in the industry and how plastic could fit into a ‘circular economy’. But, first things first – what even is bioplastic?
What is bioplastic, and why is it different to regular plastic?
The main difference lies within the source material. Conventional plastics are made from petroleum, while bioplastic can be made from plant biomass sources such as corn, sugarcane, algae, starch etc.
One of the main issues with our current petroleum based plastic is the fact that we have so much of it polluting the earth and the ocean, and that it can take hundreds – if not thousands – of years to decompose. Considering the rate that we create and dispose of conventional plastics, this is becoming a huge crisis for our landfills and ocean.
Confusingly enough, being bioplastic doesn’t necessarily mean a product is also biodegradable. Rather, bioplastics can be broadly broken down into two main categories: durable or biodegradable.
While durable bioplastics are usually recyclable (similar to regular plastic), if littered irresponsibly they will end up no differently. A bioplastic piece of waste in the ocean would still be just that – plastic waste in the ocean. Which then begs the question – if it’s not biodegradable, what’s the point?
A key factor in the favour of durable bioplastic is the fact that their source material is renewable, and this alone means the carbon footprint over the product’s entire life cycle is considerably smaller.
Simply put, if you are growing plants to create your plastic instead of mining fossil fuels, then those plants are effectively absorbing CO2 from the air during the production process and mitigating the overall CO2 emissions involved to create, transport, package and sell a bioplastic product.
It’s also worth noting that most durable bioplastics can also be recycled in the same way as traditional plastic. This fact would be more appealing if the current recycling rates weren’t already drastically low – 91% of plastic items produced are not recycled.
It feels natural to assume that the solution lies in biodegradable bioplastics, especially for single-use plastic. Unfortunately, these too have their own caveats and considerations. Just because something is biodegradable doesn’t necessarily mean it is biodegradable in all environments or situations.
For example, in a lot of cases biodegradable bioplastics will not successfully decompose if left in your household compost bin. In reality, many of them require industrial facilities with factors such as high temperatures, certain bacterias, water solvents or similar to successfully decompose.
While it it is possible for them to degrade very quickly in these environments, this important distinction is often not made clear to consumers, who may mistakenly assume it will decompose in a reasonable time frame in their home compost bin.
Without giving any further direction, telling consumers that these plastics are readily biodegradable as opposed to readily compostable is somewhat misleading.
Just to confuse things even further, there are petroleum based plastics that are also biodegradable. Of course, as we already established, the extraction and production of these plastics emit copious amounts of CO2 and still pose a massive pollution issue in the form of greenhouse gases.
What’s the solution?
Firstly, clear and concise certification could help consumers understand the differences and the impacts of their purchase decisions. Setting industry standards (such as the Fair Trade certification, or an organic certification) clearly communicates to the consumer the processes or materials used in that product.
This is what the representative from Flustix spoke about on the evening. Flustix are an independent sustainability certification in Germany that is used for plastic free or recycled plastic products.
Secondly, we need to ‘close the loop‘ – instead of working in a linear economy where everything has a single use and then goes to waste, we need to produce products that fit into a circular economy. Products should be well designed, reusable, recyclable or biodegradable, and made from renewable energies and materials. As is often said in the sustainability community – “waste is a design flaw”.
Of course, even if you have the perfect product, you still need a system in which to process it in. Governments and organisations need to have the facilities readily available, but also need to educate the general population on their part in the process.
Having a system implemented which reliably supports these ‘new’ products is a very important factor. If the perfectly designed product that is recyclable goes to a country with no recycling facilities, it will still become waste. Similarly, if a biodegradable substance is thrown in the ocean – if it’s not water soluble, then it’s just more plastic pollution on the pile.
While the innovations of bioplastic should still be embraced and invested in as a viable, lower carbon impact alternative to petroleum based plastic, the reality is that the most effective way to solve our plastic pollution problem is simply to reduce.
Try to reduce your single-use plastics, and if possible, invest in items that replace traditional plastic in your life that you can reuse over and over.
Want to embrace a life with less plastic? This comprehensive post will guide you towards zero waste and plastic-free living.
- 10 Cool Inventions and Innovations Helping to Save the Planet
- 16 Eco-Stylish Reusable Bags, Water Bottles, Coffee Cups and Other Zero Waste Essentials
- Technology is Key to Driving Sustainability in Fashion
- Individuals in the Developed World Consume More of the Earth’s Resources. Here’s How to Consume Less…
- Travelling Zero Waste: Travel Tips From the Zero Waste Experts
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Title image credit: Flickr.