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Bioplastics: are they a win or a dead end?

Many of us get the impression that the prefix “bio” signifies an ecological victory. The word bioplastic can therefore seem like the ideal way to deal with plastic pollution. But is it really?

Bioplastics: victory or pure fiction?

What are they?

Though bioplastics appear as the next big breakthrough, that will help us solve plastic pollution problems, the reality is a bit different. Bioplastics have actually been on the market for about twenty years already. We can separate them into two groups. The first group is comprised of plastic materials sourced from biomass such as corn or sugarcane and the second from plastics made from fossil fuels. Distinguishing them from conventional plastics is close to impossible as both groups have nearly identical properties- they’re hard, pliable, flexible and resilient.

One of the main things that attract us to bioplastics is the notion of production from renewable resources and easy decomposition at the end of their lifecycle. However, not all bioplastics are created equal. When we take a closer look at these materials, we find out that not all of them are actually decomposable and some even cause more harm than good. Furthermore, their production has a significant environmental impact.  For starts, the feedstock has to be planted, which uses up both water and energy and also takes up space otherwise used for planting food crops. On top of that, these crops are liberally fertilized, often releasing a large amount of nitrogen oxide into the atmosphere.

Where are they used?

Most bioplastics are used for single-use applications, such as plastic bags or disposable dishes. This is the only place they’ve been utilized thus far.

Obstacles in recycling and disposal

One problem with bioplastics is that each kind degrades differently and under different conditions. Some only require increased temperature, others specific microorganisms and yet others salt-water conditions. But a common user doesn’t know that. The question also remains, whether bioplastics can be recycled. According to scientists, the way that bioplastics are made renders them unrecyclable. For that reason, bioplastics don’t belong in yellow recycling containers. The presence of bioplastic components can contaminate and devalue the recycling of conventional plastic materials.

The future or a pipe dream?

Experts agree that bioplastics could lead the way in the future of environmental protection. As of today, however, this is still not the case and whether bioplastics really are the future still remains to be seen.

To get closer information about bioplastics from an expert, watch the interview with Dr. Petra Innemanová from our „Let’s talk about it” series.