Busting our belief in bioplastics

Bioplastics are not yet the silver bullet to our society’s plastic problem. In addition to problems related to pollution and biodegradability, the land required to produce them competes with food production, according to a blog post from the Earth Institute at Columbia University.

The world has a major plastic problem. Since the 1950s we have produced over nine billion tonnes of plastic. And with only around 9 per cent of plastic being recycled today, the vast majority ends up in our oceans or landfills, where it can take up to 500 years to decompose, all the while leaching toxic chemicals into our environment, writes Renee Cho from the Earth Institute at Columbia University.

This is where bioplastics come in. As Cho explains, bioplastics – which are made from 20 per cent or more of renewable material – have a significant advantage over traditional plastics in that they reduce the use of fossil fuel resources and decompose faster. They are also less toxic and do not contain bisphenol A (BPA), a hormone disrupter often found in traditional plastics.

But according to Cho, bioplastics are not yet the silver bullet to our over-consumption. For one, a 2010 study from the University of Pittsburgh found that they aren’t necessarily more eco-friendly than traditional plastics when the materials’ life cycles were taken into consideration. For example, bioplastics production resulted in greater amounts of pollutants due to the fertilizers and pesticides used in growing the crops.

And while they do produce significantly fewer greenhouse gas emissions over their lifetime, a 2017 study found that if traditional plastics were produced using renewable energy sources, their greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced by an impressive 50 to 75 per cent.

Bioplastics are also very difficult to break down as they require high temperature industrial composting facilities, which very few cities have. As a result, they often end up in landfills where they may release methane.

Finally, the land required for bioplastics competes with food production, explains Cho, because the crops that produce bioplastics can also be used to feed people.

Scientists around the world are working on innovative developments to address these problems, and many of them show great promise that bioplastics will one day be a greener, more efficient alternative. But until these make it to the market, society would do better to reduce its consumption of traditional and alternative plastics alike.

 

Image via Wikimedia Commons

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