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Bioplastics (pt 2)

Updated: Jul 7, 2020

From advantages to often ignored weaknesses

Now that we know better the concepts of bioplasticity and biodegradability (which we talked about in the previous article) we ask ourselves: can bioplastics really help to solve the problem of pollution of the planet?

We can say that as bioplastics are materials derived from vegetable-based polymers but some are biodegradable, other are compostable and others are non-biodegradable, this means that not all bioplastics offer the possibility of recovering other materials at the end of their life, and therefore it is a bit simplistic to say that we just have to replace all traditional plastics with bioplastics to solve the problem of pollution of the planet.

On the contrary, we note that since plastic entered the eye of the storm, all the terms preceded by “bio” have automatically taken on a positive value and corporate marketing has adapted to this new feeling in the choice of materials for old and new products/packaging, so as to exploit the potential competitive advantage. The impression is that we wanted to “seize the moment” without an assessment of the life cycle of the new proposals compared to the previous ones that are going to replace, and especially without wanting to go into what would have been the consequences of their end of life on the existing systems for starting to recycle the various waste streams. As if simply switching to bioplastic dishes was the solution to the problem. Among the other things, it is curious to observe how the large food retailer has been engaging in a “holy war” against plastic for about ten years now, only to undertake a contrary commercial policy, that is aimed at progressively increasing the supply of fresh products ready for consumption with a consequent increase of the use of packaging of any kind, organic or not. Another misunderstanding was provided by communication; in fact, since the introduction of biodegradable/ compostable bags, we have often seen articles or services that deal with plastic pollution of the seas, or the consequences on marine life, ending up talking about the law that banned plastic bags as an example of best practice in Europe. Likewise, in any initiative where plastic products were replaced by compostable options, reference eas made to the problem of plastic at sea. A sort of alleged direct relationship between the use of compostable artifacts and the preservation of the seas. On the other hand, on the occasion where there have been reports of replacements of disposable items with reusable versions ( unfortunately still very rare), this association has never been made explicit. We deduce that in order to understand how to better deal with the emergency, avoiding confusion and misinterpretation, we should avoid juxtapositions between issues like protecting the seas and rivers from plastic threat and the use of compostable materials. We can at least say that the approach is not correct.

It is true that for many traditional plastic products there is a valid alternative in biodegradable bioplastic to which these advantages must be recognize:

  • Reduced environmental impact ( due to significantly faster degradation time compared to conventional plastics)

  • Greater ease of recycling (biodegradable plastics can be deposited in landfills because of their rapid degradation time; a disposal method that is certainly more economically advantageous than waste-to-energy because the processes required are less).

Nevertheless, biodegradability does not always mean eco-sustainability, since the resources used to produced bioplastic must be considered, in particular soil and water, which today are two fundamental and very precarious resources. Let’s get it right: most biodegradable plastic substitutes come from food waste or processed agricultural products, such as corn or sugar cane.

In the first case, there is nothing to say. In the second case, however, some considerations need to be made. In fact, if these products do not harm the environment in terms of disposal, they might damage it in terms of production. Let’s make an example: it has been calculated that to produce 1kg of PET from which 25 1.5 litre bottles are produced , about 2kg of oil and 17.5 litres of water are needed. To obtain 1kg of PLA you need 2.5kg of corn and 2250 litres of water to produce the same 25 bioplastic bottles.

Therefore, the massive production of bioplastics would not be at “zero cost” to the environment and would produce some serious problems such as the increase of water used for production and the increase of soil for agriculture at the expense of equatorial areas already hard damaged by deforestation.

We also have to consider the risk that if bioplastics replaced all traditional plastic, the exploitation of plantations such as corn could reduce the agricultural production of food, with the risk of jeopardizing food availability.

So, at the moment, we can say that none of the bioplastics on the market fully meets the requirement of total eco-sustainability. As we can also say that campaigns of “demonization” of traditional plastics are a partial and incorrect way to deal with the problem of global plastic pollution. It must also be said that there is no need to reiterate the importance of traditional plastics in trade and industry. It is practically impossible to list all the uses that are made of it and at the moment it is pure utopia to think of a world completely without plastic.

So, plastic or bioplastic: we are facing two competitors that have the interest to maintain or conquer the market of disposable (and not only) products, supported by studies and analyses that are legitimately biased. The certainty is that politics must do its duty by going beyond the mere role of arbitrator between the different economic interests. If we want to have the slightest chance of mitigating global warning, freeing seas and rivers from plastics and microplastics pollution, safeguarding the health of animal species and our own, we need ambitious policies to decarbonize the economy and at the same time lead us towards radical changes in the current “wasteful” lifestyle and consumption we are accustomed to. The only long-term solution that can satisfy all the actors in this historic change seems to be to reduce both plastic and bioplastic waste, recycling and reusing more. A challenge that businesses, public administrations and citizens must face together, in a circular economy.

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