Compostable? Biodegradable? Eco-friendly? The truth about bioplastics
It is clear we have a plastic pollution problem. The cumulative production of plastic from 1950–2015 reached an astonishing 7.8 billion tonnes, with no sign of that stopping anytime soon.
As we continue to mitigate and adapt to our plastic future, bioplastics have been noted as a possible solution.
The largest markets for bioplastics are currently North America (mainly the United States of America) and Europe. However, the market is booming in Asia as well, specifically in China and India, because of plastic restrictions. In 2019, the global bioplastics market was estimated at $4.6 billion and it is projected to reach $13.1 billion in 2027.
The real question is: Are bioplastics an eco-friendly option that will help solve our plastic pollution problem?
What is a Bioplastic?
Bioplastics are defined as plastics that are bio-based, biodegradable, or both.
Bio-based refers to a material that is partially derived from organic products such as plants. Some examples include corn, sugarcane, etc.
The term biodegradable refers to the process of biodegradation.
“Biodegradation is a chemical process during which microorganisms that are available in the environment convert materials into natural substances such as water, car bon dioxide, and compost (artificial additives are not needed).”
There are many components that need to be present in order for a material or product to be biodegradable such as location and temperature.
It is important to note that bio-based does not mean biodegradable, which is a common misconception about the terms.
Lack of Term Regulations
So you may be thinking, concepts such as biodegradability and bio-based seem to be relatively straightforward? Unfortunately, it is not quite that simple.
There is no clear international agreement on what constitutes a biodegradable plastic. This makes it difficult for consumers, such as myself, to understand the difference between a “normal” plastic and a “biodegradable” plastic.
Furthermore, in the United States a “bio-based” plastic under the Department of Agriculture, only needs to contain 25 percent of carbon from biological sources as opposed to fossil fuels. This means that 75 percent of carbon made to manufacture plastics can be sourced from fossil fuels. In Canada, there is no equivalent regulation.
In fact, in the Canadian context, there is no regulatory framework that defines what a bioplastic is or how it can be managed.
Essentially, a plastic product made out of fossil fuels can be considered a bioplastic.
Bioplastics Can Contaminate Recycling and Composting Piles
Since Canada does not have regulatory frameworks that define or manage what a bioplastic is, it is no surprise that most municipal facilities do not recycle bioplastics.
For example, Vancouver, which is known as a “green city”, does not accept any biodegradable or compostable plastics in its green bins. This means that the only viable endpoint for all your take-out containers, cutlery, and products is most likely the garbage.
The narrative is similar in the US, where municipal facilities do not have the infrastructure to properly dispose of bioplastics.
Municipal recycling facilities have difficulties replicating the proper standards set out by the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI), which is an institute that certifies the biodegradability and compostability of products for organizations. Many cities in Canada do not have the capacity to keep plastics for a long period of time. Therefore, even if there was the intention to recycle them, because they cannot biodegrade properly, they all end up in the landfill.
Bioplastics and the Ocean
It is no secret that plastics have ended up in our marine environments. It is assumed that by 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in our oceans.
There is evidence to suggest that even when biodegradable plastics are left in natural environments such as soil, seawater, and open air, they do not ever properly biodegrade.
Imogen Napper, a researcher from the University of Plymouth, placed biodegradable, compostable, and oxo-biodegradable plastics in the three mentioned environments. They found that in every situation, the plastics did not biodegrade but instead broke down into microplastics, despite their “biodegradability” and “compostable” properties.
The breaking down of these plastics into microplastics is said to be “more problematic because you can’t clean up — it’s like trying to pick up Smarties with chopsticks.”
Unfortunately, bioplastics will not generate operational solutions to combat our plastic pollution problem as outlined in the above points. However, it is important to note that, we cannot rely on fossil-fuel based plastics forever, so maybe one day in the future this can become a better option.
How should we treat bioplastics? Like any other plastic material.
When approaching our plastic use, we need to refer back to our 3 R’s — reduce, reuse, and recycle.
Reduce — Reduce your plastic consumption when possible. Opt-out of plastic packaging when purchasing everyday items. Some good examples of household items that can be purchased without plastic packaging include hair products and produce.
Reuse — Before our world entered a global pandemic, I would bring my own take-out containers when eating out, however, this may not be an option for many people depending on where you are based. Remember to reuse any plastic containers until they cannot be used any longer and dispose of them properly so they do not contaminate your recycling bins.
Recycle — An option that should be your last resort. Pay attention to the types of plastics you are using and how you are recycling them. Familiarize yourself with the recycling symbols, but ensure that you understand what your municipal facilities accept.
As an individual that continues to struggle with my own plastic use, it is paramount that we continuing thinking about and improving the way we use plastic. It’s an amazing material that has advanced the healthcare industry, but we are paying a heavy price for its durability and convenience in our everyday lives.
However, as much as we can eliminate plastics from our lives, the effort will be futile if our governments do not begin to pass policies that support a circular economy or invest in the proper infrastructure to recycle plastics properly.
In Canada, Greenpeace has an easy email template to fill out that sends it to Jonathan Wilkinson’s office, the current Minister of Environment and Climate, asking the federal government to focus on the 2 first R’s rather than the last R. There are most likely similar avenues to take in other countries, such as the United States.
The reality is that we live on a plastic planet. Without actionable change, we will further drown in plastic, so it’s up to us to change our habits but also challenge our institutions to create a more sustainable future for all of us.