The truth about biodegradable and compostable plastics (bioplastics)

A life without single use plastics

Imagine if we could simply give up single use plastics. Refuse, reduce and reuse. Examples for this behaviour already exist today: 

  • banning plastic bags in super markets or straws in bars 
  • reducing plastic packaging of fruit and vegetables in grocery stores
  • drinking tap water or filtered tap water in restaurants when served for free

 This shift only works if personal behaviour changes, which is always hard, or if reasonable alternative exist.  Although bioplastics are not new alternatives to traditional petroleum-based plastics, there still seems to be a lot of confusion surrounding “greener” plastic products.

What are bioplastics?

Generally bioplastics are made of corn starch, cooking oil, algae or sugar although there are lots of other materials. Generally we have to differentiate between biodegradable and compostable bioplastics, the difference is very important.

Biodegradable refers to a material breaking down with the help of microorganisms. To be labelled a biodegradable plastic, there is no time limit set on when the product breaks down and these plastics can leave behind toxic residue.

Compostable refers to a material capable of breaking down into carbon dioxide, water, and biomass at the same rate as cellulose. Compostable plastic must also disintegrate and become indistinguishable in the compost and cannot leave any toxic material behind.

That means compostable plastic breaks down to a point that it can help in the support of plant growth.

How to make it work?

Compostable plastic will not biodegrade in a landfill. 

Throwing a “green” plastic product into a landfill defeats the purpose of creating and consuming biodegradable and compostable plastics in the first place.Many people think, oh well, it’ll at least break down eventually…but…well actually, no it probably won’t.These special plastics need air, moisture and sunlight to break down properly and unfortunately, landfills tend to entomb waste and deprives it from these necessary elements.If you buy compostable plastics it’s up to you to make sure it ends up in a composting environment.

Bioplastics do not mix with recyclable plastics

Throwing your bioplastics together with your recyclables can create a wasteful extra step for the recycling plant to sort them out or contaminate the recycled materials in the process. This is why clear labelling is so crucial: compost your compostables

There are bioplastics out there that will also break down in a home compost but the main difference to an industrial composting plant is timing. In an industrial composting environment, materials can break down faster because they often grind the materials, consistently turn the piles over and reach higher temperatures.

Circular economy with bioplastics

Bioplastics fit perfectly into the circular economic concept which is restorative and regenerative by design, it aims to keep products, components and materials at their
highest utility and value at all times. Bioplastics help to break away from the linear economy characterised by “make, use, dispose” in favour of a more circular model based on “make, use, reuse, recycle” Bioplastics, as part of the bio-economy, are a perfect illustration of circularity in that they regenerate CO2 and use renewable raw materials to make more sustainable everyday products. 

The production of bioplastics is the result of a common effort of all stakeholders involved in the value chain: agriculture, R&D, green chemistry and waste management. The benefits of bioplastics, materials that are bio-based, biodegradable, or both, are clear: they contribute positively to our economy, our society and our environment

So can bioplastics save us?

Bioplastics are not a silver bullet for plastic pollution but they are part of the solution.

To help reducing plastic waste consider the following:

  • Given the choice it’s almost always better if we can avoid packaging such as plastics entirely (check out the Osmosys water serviceplastic bottle free)
  • Bioplastics are a good alternative when packaging is required
  • Make sure bioplastic materials are sourced to have minimal environmental impact
  • Always dispose bioplastics to the most appropriate waste management stream, typically industrial composting (ask your local waste provider if you are unsure)

The past, present and future of the plastic bottle