Plastic Green Economy Part III: Le Bioplastic, c est Fantastic !
By Malina Gallmeyer, market research intern, Helene Thibieroz, We Grow Green Tech
What do you really know about bioplastics? That they are better for the environment? That they can help limit pollution? Or that they are the key to a greener world? While aspects of this typical consumer’s mindset about bioplastics are true, the reality is that many people do not understand bioplastics enough to make the decisions that will actually help the planet. There is a common misconception that bioplastics are inherently better than typical petroleum based plastics, but the truth is that, because of the vast number of different types of bioplastics, this idea is only true part of the time, while at other times it is nothing but a green washed propaganda. This is the last article in the series related solutions to the plastic waste problem throughout the world.
For starters, it is important that people understand the word “bioplastics” is an umbrella term that covers a large range of topics . Bioplastic is a generalized term that encompasses two main different types of plastics: bio-based plastics and biodegradable plastics. Another important aspect relating to the differentiation of bioplastics is that not all bio-based plastics are biodegradable and not all biodegradable plastics are bio-based. Each type of bioplastic has its own benefits and drawbacks, which will be briefly explored in the following paragraphs.
The number of bio-based plastics are vast, and they each hold the potential for greatness but are held back by unfortunate realities existing in the world. According to a study from the Wageningen Food & Biobased Research Center, the most common use for bio-based plastics is for food packaging and shopping bags. The study also explained that the most common bio-based plastics used were PLA (polylactic acid) , starch based plastics, and cellophane (cellulose based materials) . The unfortunate truth about these plastics is that while they are coming from a renewable source, the conditions needed for degradation of these plastics are so specific that they often cannot be met, and, therefore, the plastics are sent to landfills or recycled in small quantities. Certain bio-based plastics, like PLA, cannot biodegrade in most conditions, so if they manage to escape the waste system or are littered, they face the same fate as petroleum based plastics. Additionally, there is a large debate regarding the use of agricultural land for plastic as opposed to food in a world where malnourishment is an increasing issue. Other concerns are over the use of fertilizer in land used to grow plants for plastic, and the leaching of fertilizer into natural systems as a pollutant. However, if the world shifted toward a more natural approach to farming, such as regenerative agriculture, this concern could be mitigated. Regardless of the difficulties bio-based plastics have to overcome, they are a necessary step to limit the use of fossil fuels, which at current levels of use are only expected to last 47 more years.
Biodegradable, or compostable, plastic may have the ability to degrade, but they too have a great deal of concern and controversy surrounding them. These biodegradable plastics can be sorted into two main categories: bio-based plastics or petroleum based plastics with additives. Of six commonly used and produced types of biodegradable plastics, three are petroleum-based plastics that are turned biodegradable by chemical additives . In recent times, this issue has begun to shrink as producers realize the potential of plant-based plastics as opposed to petroleum based plastics. However, even in the plant-based compostable plastics space there are still problems and drawbacks that slow progress. The main concern in this area right now is the fact that many biodegradable plastics need specific conditions to degrade, and, unfortunately, those conditions are rarely met in the environment, meaning that it cannot always degrade safely in a natural setting where it is needed most. These compostable plastics claim to break down in a short amount of time, but it is usually only possible in an industrial composting site as opposed to a homemade or natural compost pile .
Changes in the bio-based, biodegradable plastic field are happening as the industrial world recognizes the potential found in polyhydroxyalkanoates, or PHAs. These polymers occur naturally from bacteria and can be used to form many different plastic-like products. Perhaps the best part of PHAs is their ability to degrade. Unlike most biodegradable plastics, PHAs can degrade not only in industrial compost locations but also in environmental settings, such as the ocean . A study proved that a type of PHA degraded 80% over one year in an aqueous environment . The type of degradation is a major improvement upon the current plastic situation and could completely change plastic throughout the world. However, currently this bioplastic is not applied to much food and general packaging due to its elevated cost in comparison to other bioplastics and virgin petroleum plastics. There is a growing effort to develop a way to produce PHAs cheaper in order to implement them in the consumer world .
Many people and businesses are recognizing the importance of bio-based or biodegradable plastics, and, for that reason, the area is experiencing growth and other economic developments. It is predicted that the bioplastic market will reach a value of USD 23.17 billion in 2026, which is a dramatic increase from the USD 9.6 billion value in 2018 . This growth is especially true for PHAs, as they were valued at USD 95.0 million in 2018 but they are estimated to experience a compound annual growth rate of 4.88% from 2018 to 2023 . With companies like PepsiCo making commitments to use bio based plastics in packaging, it is easy to see other large scale companies following in their steps and contributing to the growth of this sector . Although the market may see a dip due to circumstances related to the pandemic and incredible low crude oil prices, bioplastics are ultimately an incredibly steady investment due to the fact that they replace typical plastics, which have a constant and ever-increasing demand.
Within this fast growing market, there is a large amount of innovations taking place. The best example of this is the start-ups that have evolved to fit the needs of people and companies alike. One of the most impressive start ups of RWDC. This business from Athens, Georgia, USA, is seeking to replace petroleum-based plastics with the bio-based and biodegradable materials that come from PHAs. RWDC produces all basic plastic products from straws to coffee cups/ lids to bags [15,16]. Another impressive start up is Sulapac, which works to create packaging from wood. Their products are oil, water and oxygen resistant like its petroleum based counterparts, but this does mean that the best results for biodegradation occur in an industrial composting setting [17,18]. There is also the business Eggplant. This company not only produces PHBs, a nontoxic, bio-based, biodegradable plastic substitute, but they also do so with a 0 waste process. Eggplant highlights the goal for companies following them in the bioplastic and biodegradable plastic sector [17,19]. Lastly, the european company Vegeplast is seeing a large commercial growth with VEGEMAT®, a “raw material that will put an end to polluting plastic” . They specialize in the development and production of compostable, biobased, innovative and environmentally friendly packaging and consumer goods.
In recent years, people have begun to understand the full scope of the plastic problem and, in turn, begun to commit to a better future. The world does not need just one solution, it needs a combination that can help to decrease the amount of plastic produced and discharged into the environment. As creatures of Earth, it is important that everyone tries and works toward maintaining a better planet by investing in and supporting sustainable businesses, as well as performing simple waste reduction steps at home. Only together can society initiate real change and utilize recycling, upcycling, and bioplastics to their fullest potential. It is time to cause change and push the world toward a more sustainable future based on renewable resources.
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