To sports brands, bioplastics made from sugar cane, corn, castor beans or other renewable sources, are becoming serious alternatives to conventional petroleum-based materials. But when is bioplastic really bioplastic? And why you should know the difference between bio-based and bio-degradable?
First of all, a short lessen in chemistry. Only a short one. We promise.
So, as you might expect, bioplastics are polymers made from plants or other non-fossil fuel feedstocks. They can be bio-based and / or bio-degradable. Whereas bio-based refers to the origin of a plastic, bio-degradable means that the material will decompose into non-toxic elements when you don’t need it anymore. This also means that not all bio-based compounds are compostable. Though they’re made in a eco-friendlier way, in the end, they will pollute the oceans as conventional plastics do as well.
However, even bio-degradable plastics (dependent on their specific composition) often need very accurate conditions of special facilities, working with industrial composting or anaerobic digestion. Only then they can fully degrade in 6 to 12 weeks.
Bioplastics (such as bio-polyethylene or polylactic acid) can do almost the same stuff their conventional siblings can. And it’s not just about water bottles, packaging or some small elements like zippers or clasps. Some brands produce their running shoes’ EVA midsoles from sugar cane, others use Castor oil, and some algae.
Unfortunately, even if properly recycled or decomposed, bioplastics are not sustainable per se. PLA (polylactic acid) for example is being produced from corn. But almost 90 % of US corn is genetically modified. GMO’s are often connected to potential harm to human health, damage to the environment, negative impact on traditional farming as well as excessive corporate dominance. Or while the cultivation of sugar cane can dent global CO2 emissions, it can also lead to loss of natural habitats, overuse of water or harm by agro-chemicals.
Thus, although bioplastics have everything to substitute conventional, petroleum-based plastics – and should do so – they must be produced in a sustainable way. Therefore, the British think tank Green Alliance recommends using secondary feedstocks, such as waste or low-value by-products from other processes, to create bio-based plastics without the environmental impacts of agriculture.
Until today not more than 1% of all produced plastics are bioplastics. This missing scale causes higher prices for bio-based materials (up to 50% more expensive), which then again leads to companies producing their products from cheaper, petroleum-based compounds. Nevertheless, it’s good to see, that some brands already started to challenge this vicious circle. And more will follow.
Picture: @chokniti, freepik