Bioplastic Confusion: Let's Clear it Up

Bioplastics are an exciting world, but one where much caution is still needed.

There is a tendency to associate the terms "plant-based" and "bio" as automatically being safer and better for our earth. While this is usually at least partly true, it is critical that producers clearly and ethically market these products with detailed instructions for use and disposal.         ~tweet this~ 

Here is a visual breakdown of how things are divided in the world of plastics and bioplastics:


bioplastics infographic

bareLUXE™ Ends The Confusion About Bioplastics 

All plastic is made from carbon. The industrial processes needed to make polyethylene (PE), polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and others are the same whether the carbon being used comes from petroleum or from corn/sugar cane, etc. The end-product is the same. Being bio-based does not make it any more biodegradable or any less likely to create microplastics. These products are recyclable through the normal recycling pathways. When PE/PET plastics are bio-based, the main advantage is that renewable resources are used rather than petroleum-based fossil fuels.

There is a smaller carbon footprint and possibly faster degradation (though bio-based plastics are still plastic and not biodegradable - remember, traditional plastics can take up to 500 years to break down). All plastics degrade, but degradation is not the same as bio-degradation.

Key Points:

  • Standard varieties of plastic can be petroleum-based or bio-based
  • Neither petroleum-based nor bio-based traditional plastics are biodegradable. They need to be recycled according to standard recycling practices.

Biodegradable Plastic 

Biodegradability means that a substance will decompose with the help of micro-organisms. Traditional plastics just degrade: smaller and smaller into microplastics, then nanoplastics. In contrast, biodegradation by micro-organisms results in decomposition. Eventually, a substance that is biodegradable will be transformed into carbon dioxide, water, and biomass. Decomposed. Biodegradable does not always mean compostable, that is a second category that we will discuss later. 

  1. Petroleum-Based Biodegradable Plastic: Though not made from renewable resources, PBAT (polybutylene adipate terephthalate) decomposes completely and rapidly, even in the home compost environment.  Its use is  growing in the single-use plastic arena (i.e. shopping bags, mailer bags, etc.) and is often used as a binding agent with other materials. The major downside to PBAT is that it's a non-renewable resource. On the bright side,  research is ongoing to find ways of making it from renewable substances. Since eliminating our dependence on fossil fuels and the petrochemical industry is critical to the fight against climate change, PBAT isn't currently on our list of favorite materials. 

  2. Bio-Based Biodegradable Plastic: this is pretty exciting technology - biodegradable and bio-based! These polymers can be built from starch (corn, potato, wheat), cellulose (wood pulp), and products of microbial action or fermentation. Depending on the variety and chemical structure, there can be challenges with things like brittleness or rapid breakdown (i.e. some cannot hold liquids or gels). The two main substances currently are PLA (polylactic acid) and PHA (polyhydroxyalkanoate) and each has their own chemical synthesis/pathways as well as pros and cons. There is still a lot of scientific discovery happening in this realm and a fair bit of healthy debate about what is best, but the consensus is that these materials are all worth exploring and developing further.

Disposal of bio-based biodegradable containers can be challenging. Consumer awareness and producer communication are both essential.

Occasionally, depending on the polymer and manufacturing processes, some biodegradable plastics can be recycled with traditional plastics. However, not all recycling programs are set-up to deal with them (or even recognize them) and if they get into the wrong pathway, they can contaminate the stream and result in more plastic being sent to the landfills.

When you start using biodegradable plastic products, you may need to contact your local recycling, waste management, or composting program(s) to confirm their capabilities. If biodegradable plastics are thrown into the trash, contamination of the recycling stream is avoided. These biodegradable materials will eventually disappear completely, but unfortunately not all will do so in a timeline that is reasonable. Being responsible consumers means knowing how to dispose of products properly. 

A word of caution: There is a growing practice of blending composite materials. Wheat Straw-PP is an example of a fully biodegradable substance (wheat straw) blended with polypropylene plastic. When thrown into a landfill, full biodegradation of the wheat-straw component will occur, but the PP plastic will be left to degrade down the microplastic pathway. Is this better? Is this worse?

The answer is complex. Better than 100% plastic in the landfill? Yes! Worse than 100% biodegradable in the landfill? Also yes. Composite materials are likely the way of the future because utilizing different materials together will improve the mechanical properties of the end products. Hopefully new composite blends will be found that utilize 100% biodegradable materials rather than a blend with traditional plastic. Also, don't forget that a landfill acts like a tomb. Biodegradation occurs very differently and on a different timeline when the material is in the open environment. It may never happen in a landfill. 

Key Points:

  • Biodegradable plastics can be petroleum-based or bio-based
  • Biodegradable plastics need to be disposed of properly, but this should be communicated well to the consumer 

Responsible Consumers Reduce, Reuse, Recycle 

The most important point of all of this is to know that disposal of your (plastic)(bioplastic)(compostable plastic)(biodegradable plastic)(recyclable plastic)(any other type of plastic) needs to have the instructions followed properly. Consumers need to be responsible. Producers need to be honest and clear.

Communities and governments need to stay ahead of the times and know that new materials and composite mixtures are always in development. Industrial biowaste programs should be the standard, not the exception.

Scientists need to keep exploring and developing new ideas and prototypes. PHA seems to be on the cutting edge at the moment, but many more are being worked on now.

bareLUXE is working to educate consumers on environmentally friendly packaging and green skincare products. Truly sustainable skincare containers are hard to find, but we're working on it! If you have any questions or concerns, we invite you to reach out.