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What are Bioplastics and Biobased Polymers?


In recent years, there has been a growing interest in finding more sustainable alternatives to traditional petroleum-based plastics. Bioplastics, or biobased polymers made from renewable resources are one of the most promising options.

In this article, we will explore:

  • What are bioplastics?
  • What are some types of bioplastics?
  • Do bioplastics actually biodegrade?
  • How long do bioplastics take to decompose?
  • Are bioplastics recyclable?
  • What are the upstream benefits and downsides?

What are Bioplastics?

Bioplastics are plant-based plastics derived from renewable and sustainable materials like corn or vegetable oils. They provide a natural substitute for regular plastics made from fossil fuels that contain harmful chemicals.

One notable advantage of bioplastics lies in their biodegradability. They are more environmentally friendly because they can decompose which decreases the amount of waste generated. In contrast, regular plastics can persist for hundreds of years, contribute to the long term plastic waste problem. This waste poses a threat to wildlife and human health.

Additionally, bioplastics share the convenience of being recyclable alongside traditional plastics. This aligns with existing recycling systems, making it simpler for individuals to recycle them properly.

What are some types of bioplastics?

Bioplastics offer a diverse range of options, each with its distinct features and uses. Here are some common biobased types of plastic:

PLA (Polylactic Acid)is a clear and flexible material made from plants like corn, cassava, sugar cane or beets. Many industries use it widely including food packaging, medical devices, and 3D printing.

PHA (Polyhydroxyalkanoates) is a biodegradable polymer with a broad range of applications, including packaging, medical products, and agricultural films. Known for excellent biodegradability, breaking down in various environments like soil, water, and industrial composting facilities.

tPLA (Talc-filled Polylactic Acid): A natural mineral-enhanced version of PLA, tPLA offers improved heat resistance and rigidity. Ideal for applications requiring higher temperature resistance, such as disposable hot cup lids and utensils.

CPLA (Crystallized Polylactic Acid)is a crystallizedform of PLA. People commonly use it to make cutlery, containers, and foodservice products. Made for extra rigidity and heat resistance, it can withstand higher temperatures compared to regular PLA.

VNPLA (Vinylized Polylactic Acid) is a film for enhancing flexibility and impact resistance. Suited for applications like flexible packaging, films, and coatings.

PHB/PHBH (Polyhydroxybutyrate/Polyhydroxybutyrate-co-hydroxyvalerate): Produced by bacteria, PHB and PHBH are biopolymers recognized for their exceptional biodegradability and mechanical properties. Suitable for a variety of applications, including packaging, disposable items, and medical products.

These examples each perform a specific purpose in meeting the demand for eco-friendly materials.

Do bioplastics actually biodegrade?

People view bio based plastics as eco-friendly compared to regular plastics because they can break down. However, it's important to know that not all break down the same way or in the same conditions.

Biodegradability refers to a material's natural breakdown into harmless substances, facilitated by microorganisms such as bacteria or fungi. Some biobased plastics break down under specific conditions, while others require the controlled environment of industrial composting facilities or specific temperature conditions.

Distinguishing between compostable vs biodegradable is crucial. Biodegradable materials naturally decompose over time, while compostable materials specifically break down with the heat of a composting environment, transforming into nutrient-rich soil. The rate of either method can vary depending on factors such as temperature, humidity, and the presence of microorganisms.

Many certified compostable bioplastic products do not biodegrade fast enough to reduce waste. Additionally, any bioplastics will not degrade in landfills so proper disposal is crucial for end-of-life benefits.

How long do bioplastics take to decompose?

Bioplastics break down at varying rates, influenced by factors like their type, environmental conditions, and disposal methods. Biodegradable plastics break down faster than traditional plastics such as PET or PP. These fossil based plastics can remain in the environment for hundreds of years.

Microorganisms like bacteria and fungi fuel the breakdown of bioplastics, transforming them into simpler, non-toxic substances and reducing their environmental impact. 

Factors like temperature, humidity, and the presence of microorganisms play key roles in decomposition. Higher temperatures and moisture levels speed up the process, while colder or drier climates may slow it down. 

Additionally, material thickness and bioplastic composition affect decomposition, with thicker materials taking longer to break down and additives influencing biodegradability.

Are bioplastics recyclable?

Bioplastics offer multiple recycling options based on their type and the available recycling facilities. Mechanical recycling, a common method, involves sorting, cleaning, and processing recycled materials into new plastic products.

Chemical recycling breaks down bioplastics into basic components for the creation of new materials or fuels. Industrial composting facilities can also compost most types if certified compostable. 

Although some facilities may accept these materials, they are not yet widely accepted. It's also crucial to note that not all bioplastics follow the same recycling process. Refer to the recycling guidelines specific to each type of bioplastic to ensure proper recycling practices.

What are the upstream benefits of bioplastics?

Bioplastics bring significant advantages to their production processes, promoting a more sustainable and environmentally friendly approach.

1. Reduced Carbon Footprint

Manufacturers make bioplastics from renewable resources such as plants. These plants absorb carbon dioxide during growth. This lowers greenhouse gas emissions compared to traditional plastics made from fossil fuels.

2. Reduced Energy Consumption

Another advantage lies in the reduced energy consumption during biobased plastics production. The manufacturing process typically demands less energy, involving lower temperatures and fewer chemical reactions compared to traditional production of plastic. The Institute on the Environment suggests petro-polymers can use over 50% more energy than PLA production.

3. Conservation of Resources

Bioplastics utilize renewable resources, such as corn, sugarcane, or vegetable oils, which can be grown and harvested continuously. This helps to conserve finite resources like petroleum and reduces dependence on non-renewable fossil fuels.

Importance of the entire lifecycle of bioplastics:

1. Biodegradability

Bioplastics are designed to break down naturally through biological processes, either in industrial composting facilities or in natural environments. This reduces the accumulation of plastic waste and helps prevent plastic pollution.

2. Circular Economy

Furthermore, compostable plastics actively contribute to the Circular Economy by undergoing composting at the end of their life cycle. This helps reuse raw materials and reduce the amount of waste. Composting also aligns with the circular economy principles and maximizes resource efficiency.

3. Reduced Environmental Impact

Examining the entire life cycle of bioplastics aids in minimizing their environmental impact. This includes sourcing the materials, manufacturing, utilization, and disposal processes. By choosing compostable plastics over traditional plastics, we can reduce the overall environmental footprint of plastic products.

What are the downsides of using bioplastics?

Although bioplastics offer advantages, we should consider certain things. Although they contribute to addressing plastic waste, they don't provide a complete solution. Here are key points to keep in mind:

Biodegradability presents a challenge. While designed to break down, not all bioplastics fully biodegrade. Many require specific conditions, such as industrial composting facilities, for proper decomposition. Incorrect disposal can result in contributing to plastic waste and pollution.

Land and water usage in bioplastics production are significant concerns. Growing corn or sugarcane for bio-resins needs land and water, which may take away from food production. Poor management of crop cultivation can lead to adverse environmental impacts, including deforestation and water pollution.

The Future of Bioplastics

As we explore the potential of bioplastics in mitigating plastic pollution, a nuanced understanding of their characteristics, disposal requirements, and environmental impacts is crucial. Finding a middle ground for the advantages and difficulties is important. This will promote a greener and more accountable way of using plastic in different industries.