Are Bioplastics the solution?
Are you curious about bioplastic but unsure if they are actually a good solution for your eco-packaging?
You’ve probably heard the news that plastic is bad for our health and the planet and we need to find more eco-friendly ways to package our products.
Clever scientist guys and gals have come up with a few versions of eco plastics called bio-plastic. Sounds great hey?
But, what exactly is it?
I’ve asked this question myself and put my head down to explore bioplastics in more detail to come up with an easy to understand explanation along with considerations to what happens with these materials at their “end of life stage” when we no longer need them? Can they be recycled? Can they go in your home compost?
Let’s take a closer look.
But first, what are bioplastics?
Bioplastics differ from traditional plastics in that they are bio-based, biodegradable or both. This is a popular definition used by European Bioplastics but biodegradable and bio-based are not the same thing. Which means not all bioplastics are the same and to make matters more confusing some plastics termed ‘bioplastics’ contain ZERO bio-based material. Shocking (and super confusing) I know!
Not all bioplastics are the same
Before we continue, here are a few terms you should know:
- Bio-based: Made either fully or partly from organic material ie. corn starch, sugarcane
- Biodegradable: Breaks down completely within weeks into water and carbon dioxide
- Compostable: Will biodegrade fully in a compost site leaving no toxic residue
- Degradable: Breaks down into smaller micro-plastics
The term Bioplastic can be used for plastics made fully or partly from organic material (ideally food waste) such as corn starch and sugarcane that are used to make an organic resin material called PLA (poly lactic acid). These bioplastics look and feel like traditional plastic but the benefits for our health and environment far outweigh petroleum based plastics as they are non-toxic and decompose into water and carbon dioxide within weeks under the right composting conditions (ideally an industrial composting facility).
Okay wait. So if the term ‘Bioplastic’ can be used for plastics that are fully made of organic material OR partly made of organic material what is the difference?
- Fully made of organic material, means they are 100% bio-based. These bioplastics will biodegrade fully under the right circumstances (ideally in an industrial compost facility). These plastics can not be recycled along side traditional plastics as they are consider contaminants in most recycling facilities (speak to your local council for more details on this).
- Partly made of organic material, means they are mixed content bioplastic made partly from bio-based material and partly from petroleum based material. This means they are not biodegradablein a compost facility. However, depending on the percentage of bio-based material these usually can be recycled in a regular recycling facility because they are petroleum based.
- Biodegradable Plastics, next we have the sneaky biodegradable or degradable plastics which sound eco-friendly but are far from it. These plastics are petroleum based plastic that breaks down quickly due to the chemical makeup (ask a scientist more on this, I’m just a graphic designer) So these types of plastics are neither biodegradable or bio-based. Rather they degrade down into smaller pieces of plastic called micro plastics which I guess depending on the rate at which they break down can be termed “biodegradable” in some places? I’m not sure but they are not bioplastics in my opinion and should not be termed as such because it’s confusing.
Here’s a little graphic that might make it more clear.
In my opinion starch based bioplastics are the winner!
Starch based plastics are made from 100% organic material and are the most planet friendly option because they:
- Look and function similar to traditional plastics
- Biodegrade fully within weeks into water and carbon dioxide under proper conditions
- Remove the risk of toxic chemicals leaching into your products making them ideal for food and skincare packaging
- Reduce our dependence on petroleum based plastics
However, even with all this greatness there is still a lot of work to be done to make bioplastics a complete circular solution to our plastic waste problem. Retailers and local councils need to advocate for an infrastructure where collection and disposal of bio-based plastics is both effective and efficient.
As technology advances and the demand for bioplastics grows I think it will become a more cost effective solution and replace traditional plastic packaging for good. Hallelujah to that!
What do you think? I would love to know.