Bioplastics may not be a cure-all solution to the problem of plastic waste.
The last few months have been packed with action on plastics, including the Plastic Free campaign and steps against disposable plastics taken by the EU in the new European Strategy for Plastics. Many have also been advocating for a plastic-free world.
Despite all such action, plastic pollution continues to grow globally. A promising alternative has been on the horizon for years now: bioplastics. All sorts of “bioplastics” with shiny green labels and claims to do no harm to the environment are replacing conventional plastics in many new applications. But is it really the way we want to go?
The short answer may well be no. A longer answer is that the market is overflowing with diverse bioplastics of every kind (bio-based and fossil-based, biodegradable and non-biodegradable), yet they all have different impacts on the environment. According to the researchers Paolo Calabro and Mario Grosso in their recent paper published in Waste Management journal, there is a long way to go until bioplastics can be deemed a sustainable alternative.
Bioplastics are widely seen as plastic-like materials made of natural substances that can easily degrade in the environment. And while this is true of some types of bioplastics, it isn’t the case for others.
Many bioplastics on the market are actually a combination. When a label claims them as “a truly sustainable choice,” the ingredients may leave no hope to avoid greenwashing as 90% organic and 10% fossil fuel-based plastics contents make the item neither degradable nor recyclable in the end. The only options left are to burn them or bury them, which aren’t good ones from an environmental perspective.
Many companies still operate with old-fashioned business mindsets, according to Ariadna Rodrigo, a campaigner from the advocacy group Zero Waste Europe. Worse: no regulation obliges companies to specify the contents or ratios in their plastic-alike products.
Hope lies in certified biodegradable and compostable plastics. Yet “compostable” doesn’t necessarily mean you can bury such plastic products in your backyard to feed the compost. Commonly, you’ll need an industrial composting facility with temperatures reaching 50-70°C at certain stages of the process, as well as proper levels of moisture and airflow. And while composting and biogas facilities are spreading across Europe, not too many cities have them or have yet established proper collection systems.
When it comes to degradability, there is one more catch: new sorts of soil-biodegradable or marine-biodegradable plastics are actually meant never to completely degrade, as only 2% of plastics used in the EU annually for mulching is fully biodegradable, according to the Institute for European Environmental Policy. Falling into ever smaller particles, this type of plastics follows the same pathway as regular ones do, which is to say it dissolves into ever smaller particles, thereby accumulating throughout the food chains and getting into our tap water and onto our plates.
Finally, there are the plastics that are marketed as “home compostable.” These are the ones you should give a try, feeding your compost pile in the backyard. Yet their portion of the market is still small. Proper legislation and industry standards are still lacking, so companies may not be able to scale these plastics up in the near future.
What with all this diversity in bioplastics, it’s becoming harder than ever to make the right choice. The best everyday solution is to simply change our habits and switch to effective alternatives to plastics.