Bioplastics are complicated, and largely misunderstood. With all the marketing hype surrounding them, and the information left unsaid, it is no surprise that consumers are confused.
Even those in the manufacturing, plastics and packaging industries have little understanding of how they actually work, or what their limitations are – and what retailers and consumers think (or assume) they are purchasing is often very different than the reality.
Myth vs Reality: Myth #1
Bioplastics are better than plastic. The truth: there are many different types of bioplastics available, but only the most cost effective solutions are in use today – and they aren’t necessarily any better than traditional plastic.
For example, PET plastic (commonly used for water bottles) made from an apple, corn or plant material is exactly the same as fossil fuel PET; the only difference is that some or all of the resin made from fossil fuel has been replaced with resin made from biological material. Once the corn or plant has been transformed into plastic resin, it then has exactly the same properties as any other plastic. It is not biodegradable, and experts question if it is less sustainable than traditional plastic because of the food and farming resources it uses, and the energy required to manufacture the product.
Another commonly used bioplastic, PLA (often made from cornstarch), is not strong enough to be used on its own, so it must be mixed with other polymers (such as PET) to be usable. While the biomass component in PLA does biodegrade rapidly, the plastic component acts exactly like normal plastic and takes the same 700+ years to biodegrade. Because the biomass portion degrades quickly – often lasting less than 90 days – there have been storage/shipping issues such as water bottles beginning to fall apart before the water can be consumed.
Heading towards usable, long-term solutions
As research and product development continues, many new products are entering the market. As a long-term solution, the most effective end product may end up being a biodegradable plastic-additive blend that continues using petroleum by-products (what is left over after processing fossil fuel into gasoline), or it may end up being an affordable, fully biodegradable bioplastic that uses waste materials or non-food matter. Only time and research will tell.