Last updated on February 13, 2022.
In my first article, I introduced the topic of packaging – its history, the current problems with packaging, and I introduced greenwashing. In my second article, I wrote about the terms biodegradable and compostable, and how those terms are often misused. Now we will explore bioplastics.
Bioplastics are used in packaging which is then marketed as sustainable, and even as biodegradable. “Most biodegradable and compostable plastics are bioplastics, made from plants rather than fossil fuels.” Mike Manna of Organic Recycling Solutions explained just that in his appropriately titled essay, “The Myth of Biodegradability” in The Future of Packaging: From Linear to Circular.
But biodegradability hinges on two key factors. First, raw materials used in bioplastics are more sustainably sourced than petroleum-based plastic. “Many bioplastics are not 100 percent made of natural biomass. To be called a bioplastic, they generally have to be at least 20 percent derived from natural sources. What about the other 80 percent? Excellent question. Many bioplastics contain fossil fuel-based plastic resins and numerous synthetic additives – such as fillers, softeners and flame retardants – just like conventional plastics.”1
The second key factor is there would be less concern about pollution since these items would naturally degrade. But that is not how it works. “The latter factor, however, has mobilized a torrent of misinformation, misplaced optimism, consumer confusion, and headaches for recyclers and composters alike,” Manna wrote. They must be sent to an industrial compost facility to break down. As you know from my previous article, these facilities are few and far between. So bioplastics that require industrial composters are far from guaranteed to make it to one. Biodegradable plastics that do make it to an industrial compost facility will not create usable soil. It lacks the macro and micronutrients of regular compost. “It just doesn’t make environmental sense to take a plant, turn that pant into a highly refined petrochemical, only to then use it once and have it turn into something effectively worse than soil,” wrote Manna.
Bioplastics are made of either polylactic acid (PLA) or polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA), both of which are #7 plastics. These cannot be recycled and therefore contaminate single-stream recycling systems, making entire loads of recycling unrecyclable. In many ways, bioplastics are worse for single-use disposable items than traditional fossil fuel plastics.
“Often omitted is the amount of energy that goes into, and the negative effects related to, the growing, harvesting, and transportation of bioplastics. Also, in a world full of hungry people, do we really want to be pushing agricultural lands into production of plastics rather than food?” -Michael SanClements, author of Plastic Purge2
“Sadly, bioplastics do not present a solution for plastic soup or for reducing plastic litter.” -Michiel Roscam Abbing3
Bioplastics are plastics made from natural, renewable sources, such as corn, sugar cane, or potatoes. “The thought is that plastics made with plants, as opposed to fossil fuels, will sustain the unstoppable trajectory of the world’s consumption with a more sustainable material,” Manna wrote. But bioplastics only have to be composed of as little as 20 percent of renewable material to be marketed (or greenwashed) as such, and can still contain a majority of fossil fuel-based plastic.4
Most importantly, renewable sources have to be grown and produced, and agriculture requires a ton of energy. “The corn that is used to make the bio-plastics is not organic,” so there are a lot of pesticides used. “The end result is that valuable agricultural land was used to create something that just gets thrown away,” said Céline Jennison, the founder of Plastic Tides.5
“As of now, turning plants into plastic remains more energy-intensive than recycling used plastic.”6
Corn is a crop used to supplement lots of resources such as gasoline (ethanol), agricultural feed, paper goods, and now plastics. While corn is not a fossil fuel, critics of it suggest that corn creates more problems by contributing to global warming, chemical pollution, and energy waste. It demands more nitrogen fertilizer and pesticides than other crops, and which are made from natural gas and oil. “Runoff from these chemicals finds its way into the groundwater and, in the Midwestern corn belt, into the Mississippi River, which carries it to the Gulf of Mexico, where it has already killed off marine life in a 12,000-square-mile area,” wrote author Michael Pollan.7
“America’s corn crop might look like a sustainable, solar-powered system for producing food, but it is actually a huge, inefficient, polluting machine that guzzles fossil fuel—a half a gallon of it for every bushel.” -Michael Pollan
“Corn is hardly sustainable, not the way it’s grown in this country. Farmed at an industrial scale, corn requires vast amounts of herbicides and fertilizer. With heavy rain, these inputs run into waterways and pollute drinking water.” -Elizabeth Royte8
Example: Coca-Cola Plant Bottle
“We replaced up to 30% of the petroleum used to make PET plastic bottles with material from sugar canes and other plants. The result? You’d have to take nearly 1 million vehicles off the road to achieve the same reduction in CO2 emissions that PlantBottle™ has achieved since 2009.”9
These claims are questionable. Supposedly, this particular alternative to traditional PET (#1) plastic can be recycled with regular PET plastics. However, how much petroleum does it take to produce sugarcane? As for the CO2 reduction, how did they come up with this calculation?
The company has vowed to “use at least 50% recycled material in our packaging by 2030.”10 Why haven’t they been doing this all along? Coca-Cola released an advertisement about a “Coke Bottle Made With Plastic From The Sea,” which was made with plastics picked up by volunteers on beaches on the Mediterranean Sea.11 Volunteers who used their free time to pick up trash on beaches because it’s the right thing to do. Coca-Cola easily has enough money to pay employees to do the same thing. A true solution would be to stop pollution by eliminating this type of packaging.
What about other real solutions, like reverting back to glass bottles? We know that glass is 100% recyclable and does not leach toxins and chemicals. Glass can also be managed through a container deposit system, and can truly be a part of a circular economy.
Example: Procter & Gamble
Procter & Gamble designed a shampoo bottle using recycled beach plastic. They partnered with TerraCycle and SUEZ, a waste management firm. Again, it was using volunteer labor for the collection of plastic polluting beaches. “Sourced through partnerships with beach cleanup organizations already picking up litter on the shores of oceans and other waterways, ocean plastic originally headed for landfills was used to establish a new supply chain,” wrote Virginie Helias at Procter & Gamble. But ‘plastic originally headed for landfills’ is misleading. Much of this plastic had likely already been sent to the landfill or recycling center before and then ended up in the ocean anyway! “Ocean plastic products are seen by many as a distraction that takes attention and resources away from source reduction, while only cleaning up a tiny fraction of ocean plastic,” wrote Jennie Romer, lawyer and sustainability expert.12
Procter & Gamble’s goal is to make 100% of its packaging recyclable and reusable by 2030. While this is a respectable goal, it should focus on reusable packaging since recycling is not the answer. If we stop the disposable stream at the source, that would be far more impactful than all of the recycling systems combined. P&G can do better and have the resources to do much more.
Are there other solutions?
“The key takeaway about bioplastics: They are NOT the solution to plastic pollution and toxicity problems. They will likely play a role, but given their mixed character and the chemical additives most of them contain, relying on them is not a replacement for making a concerted effort to reduce all plastic use at the source.” –13
Plastic substitutes are not the answer, just as synthetic biodegradable materials and recycling are not the answers. We also cannot possibly recycle all the plastic away at this point. We know that only 9% of plastic sent to recycling facilities is recycled.
But there are other packaging innovations out there. We’ll explore those in my next post, Part 4. Please subscribe and share, and thanks for reading!
“If you want to eliminate waste in your life – and in the world – the answers will always come down to one simple thing: consume differently.” -Tom Szaky
Article, “What you need to know about plant-based plastics,” by Sarah Gibbens, National Geographic, November 15, 2018.
Post, “The Truth & Consequences of Bioplastics,” EcoLunchbox.com, accessed July 5, 2021.
Article, “Why biodegradables won’t solve the plastic crisis,” by Kelly Oakes, BBC Future, November 5, 2019.