Bioplastics. Are they the holy grail? Or are they wholly missing the mark?

What Is It?

Bioplastics are derived from plant sources like sugar cane, vegetable oils, straw, and most commonly, corn. According to Columbia University, the bioplastics market is set to grow from $17 billion to $44 billion by 2022.

Better for the Environment? It’s Complicated

We have to take into account not only how we dispose of a product but what we take from the environment and how it’s made

We often think of these plant-based plastics as more environmentally friendly, right? Well, the University of Pittsburgh conducted a study putting bioplastics to the test. Within their study they had 7 bioplastics, 4 petroleum, (or conventional plastics) and one hybrid. They took into account the plastic’s entire lifespan from production to what happens once it’s discarded.

Researchers discovered bioplastics used more resources and taxed the environment more than petroleum-based cups. Crops used to make bioplastics use more farmland and require more fertilizer and pesticides as compared to the conventional and hybrid plastics.

During bioplastic production, taking plants and turning them into plastics also used more energy and more chemicals. Perhaps most surprising, “biopolymers [bioplastics] exceeded most of the petroleum-based polymers for ecotoxicity and carcinogen emissions.”

However, bioplastics beat out conventional plastic cups when it came to green design with cups containing sugar, cornstarch, corn stalks, and corn kernels taking top ranks. Additionally, according to Columbia University, when we look at the entire lifespan, bioplastics emit fewer greenhouse emissions over time.

But I Can Compost Them!

If you’ve used a bioplastic cup or product, you will notice “compostable” proudly displayed. Unfortunately, as compared to food scraps, bioplastics require high heat that only a commercial composting company can provide.

Furthermore, bioplastics cannot be recycled with traditional plastics due to it’s plant-based nature. Currently there is not a system in place to properly recycle or compost bioplastics. They often end up in landfill where they mix with inorganic materials emitting methane (methane, of course, makes the earth hot).

Solutions

BYOC: bring your own cup remains the best option, or requesting a ‘real’ cup from the restaurant or coffeehouse.

Raise your voice: let companies know they need to provide compost receptacles for these bioplastics. The burden of disposal should not always fall on the consumer, but on the companies who create the trash.

Refuse: avoid companies and places who offer these as their only options.

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