Sustainable Bioplastics: Are They Really Greener?

By Autumn Faitak & Spencer Lum

 

Justification for Investigation

In August 2020, Dalhousie University reported that 70% of Canadians support a ban on single-use plastics. As per CTV’s October 7th, 2020 article, Canada announced its commitment to ban a list of non-reusable plastic products by 2022. In place of single-use plastic cutlery and plastic food packaging, restaurants and grocers are opting to find a viable solution to replace single-use plastics. The Government of Canada has placed guidance in their discussion paper on an integrated management approach to plastic products by using bioplastics as an innovative, sustainable alternative to single-use plastics.  


Figure 1: Restaurants Moving to Bioplastics as per Government Direction

(Source: www.therail.media/stories/2020/1/17/the-daily-rail-sadly-for-restaurants-bio-plastics-arent-living-up-the-hype)

Bioplastics (Biodegradable Plastics)

Author Chris Woodford defines bioplastics as made of biological-based materials that convert sugars into polylactic acids or polyethylene terephthalate (PET). In substitution of petroleum for the traditional, single-use plastics, the sugars are extracted from corn starch, sugarcane or vegetable fats and oils. After converting into polylactic acid or PET, the acid gets engineered into a usable form, known as bioplastics. Such as, utensils, takeout containers and straws, the typical usable forms are applied in food consumption or food packaging. 

 

Sustainability & Sustainable Materials

Sustainability is the ideology of meeting the needs of the current generation, without compromising those of future generations. That is, a sustainable concept is one in which present and future society, economy and environment are considered. These are the three pillars of sustainability and are all equally important to consider to achieve true sustainability. 

 

Figure 2: Three Pillars of Sustainability

(Source: https://www.conceptdraw.com/examples/venn-diagram-model-of-sustainable-development)

 

The Good

Bioplastics originate from the renewable plant biomass source, rather than the non-renewable raw petrochemicals source. Journalist Anja Krieger notes that most traditional plastics can be reproduced with the biomass yielding the exact same chemical composition. 

 

The appeal of bioplastics is that they can be composted in commercial facilities, which limits the amount of waste that is sent to the landfill. Under specific conditions of proper sun and oxygen exposure, they are 100% biodegradable. For these reasons, the use of bioplastics is said to have less of an impact on climate change overall, compared to single-use plastics. 

 

Multiple sources also note that, in comparison to traditional plastics, bioplastics are equal in durability and versatility and they do not change the flavor or scent of the food they carry, leaving the user experience unchanged in the switch from traditional plastics to bioplastics making it a viable alternative. 

 

The Bad

Although using bioplastics as an alternative to traditional plastics sounds appealing, it may be too good to be true, as they have more of an environmental impact than most companies claim. More specifically, bioplastics still have a large carbon footprint. They are often made from derivatives of corn matter or palm oil, which are responsible for greenhouse gas emissions and global mass deforestation, according to the International Conservation of Nature (IUCN), contributing to both climate change and a decrease in biodiversity. Krieger reiterates a concern from Christoph Lauwigi, from Friends of the Earth Germany, who worries that an increase in production of these crops raises arable land pressure that can lead to water shortage and a loss of biodiversity. 

 

Another major problem with bioplastics is also how they are used and disposed of by consumers. According to British MPs, most require industrial composting facilities to break down, which are often difficult to access. Even when they reach those facilities, the breakdown process requires water, energy, and heavy chemicals. Once bioplastics are accidentally added to traditional plastic recycling, they contaminate the recycling stream, leading to more plastics in the landfill. Bioplastics are also frowned-upon, as they perpetuate single-use consumption, rather than encourage the use of reusables. 

 

Bioplastics can also be a rather expensive and unattainable alternative between their production and disposal. Krieger echoes a comment from Frederick Wurm, a chemist at the Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research (MPIP), on the expense of innovative bioplastic technology saying that “It sounds fancy, it is fancy and it’s expensive.” He further notes that even if the funding was available, producing a material that is fully functioning and then biodegrades immediately following its lifetime, is “not going to happen. Never.” 

 

Next Steps

Despite the need for a more sustainable alternative to single-use plastics, bioplastics is not the viable solution economically, environmentally and socially. Although bioplastics are degradable, they require special facilities beyond the traditional compost, recycling and garbage delineation that exists today. Without the funding and special treatment for bioplastic collection, bioplastics will be as environmentally harmful as single-use plastics, with the added cost to produce bioplastics.

Figure 3: Vancouver Awarded 2020’s Greenest City in the World: Cities being the Solution to the Global Environmental Crisis

(Source: https://www.conceptdraw.com/examples/venn-diagram-model-of-sustainable-development)

To find a sustainable alternative to single-use plastics, governments must not rush to act on implementing alternatives; studies must be conducted to examine all possible solutions for its environmental impact and must be supported economically and socially by the population for proper use and proper disposal. However, as global citizens, taking action today starts with permanently reducing our consumption of single-use plastics and other single-use materials, to buy governments more time to study the alternatives.

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