Bioplastics are Getting Ubiquitous Now, but Will They Solve the Global Problem? 

“To counter the plastic problem, we’re making/using bioplastic with [insert features] that won’t damage the Earth further.” 

We’ve all seen such statements from small green tech companies to large corporations. And because of the features and supposed attractive benefits for our planet, more businesses have tried to entice consumers with this new type of plastic. 

But has it been really successful in terms of tackling the global problem? Unfortunately—and some of you may not be surprised at all—it hasn’t. 

It’s true that big companies with international presence have been under public pressure to solve plastic pollution, they’ve been unable to find material or process that’s as cheap and useful as good old single-use plastics. 

Bioplastics has undeniably had a growing popularity over the recent years. However, it has been a major challenge to provide modern consumers with an organic plastic that satisfies product needs and, after use, becomes part of nature again. It’s also significantly difficult so far to make such plastics low-cost and effective. 

“The concept that we could use it, throw it away, and it doesn’t matter where you throw it, and it’s going to safely disappear, that does not exist. Nobody could engineer something like that, not even nature,” said Ramani Narayan, a professor at the School of Packaging at Michigan State University. 

Recycling vs bioplastics 

I understand when people favor more bioplastics because in some parts of this world, recycling is simply not a good solution, due to many factors. So, plastics that can biodegrade, compost itself, melt in hot water, seem to be the better option. 

However, many experts believe that solution to plastic waste doesn’t lie in developing better bioplastics, but in recycling instead. A two-year study by Pew Charitable Trusts and SYSTEMIQ found that even though industry, NGOs, governments have made efforts, plastic problem is getting much worse. 

According to a study authored by researchers associated with the Pew report, it’s estimated that some 11 million metric tons of plastic now find their way into the oceans each year; 3 million more than previous estimates. 

Per the Pew report, there needs to be a massive $600 billion overhaul of the world’s plastic system that reuses and recycles plastic in a circular economy. Bioplastics don’t need to go away, because they also help even though the change is smaller in scale. 

If the world does that overhaul, we can reduce plastic waste by 80% over the next two decades, the Pew study says. 

Additionally, the report proposed more steps to wean us off plastic. They include substituting with paper or compostable material, designing products for effective recycling, increasing mechanical recycling, scaling up collection and recycling efforts in moderate and low-income countries, and ending exports of plastic waste so that the countries with more waste would come up with solutions instead of producing more plastics. 

Marian Chertow, an expert in industrial ecology at the Yale School of the Environment, opined that a key step is not burdening governments for recycling. Instead, we companies that use plastic packaging are required to play a lead role in recycling and reusing. 


PLA blend bioplastic bag. Photo by F. Kesselring Wikimedia Commons

Bioplastics and their promises 

We frequently hear that bioplastics play an important part in tackling the worldwide problem. Why have it not succeeded in replacing convenient plastics completely? 

Let’s have a brief look at the capabilities of single-use plastic packaging. This packaging is made from oil, more specifically polyethylene terephthalate or PET.  

Despite the negative impacts, most drinks and food are sold in this plastic. Yes, it’s strong, light, versatile, and economical. But, it protects products well, keeps them fresh, and is able to withstand the acid and pressurization of soft drinks without breaking down over months or years. 

To replace conventional plastic, bioplastics must be able to replicate such functions. 

Two of the most commonly used bioplastics are PHA (polyhydroxyalkanoate) and PLA (polylactic acid). The former is usually made from sugars grown from algae, and the latter is made from sugar found in crops like corn or sugarcane.  

PLA is a tenth the cost of PHA and so is more widely used for disposable cutlery and a variety of packaging. On the other hand, PHA is used as a coating for the inside of paper cups and medical applications. 

There is a reason as to why the two types of bioplastics isn’t widely used. Both don’t compare to the strength and other characteristics of traditional plastic, and although PLA is cheaper, both of them cost a lot more. Most businesses will always look at costs before considering environmental benefits. 

To give you a picture, global plastic market is worth $1.2 trillion, and bioplastics have a market share of $9 billion. 

When too many bioplastics pile up 

Now, it is true that bioplastics are easily broken down by microorganisms and become a part of the nature within a short period of time. But, this mostly happens if the plastic is collected and composted in carefully controlled, high-temperature industrial composting facilities. 

And so far, there aren’t many of those facilities, particularly in developing countries where plastic waste problem is most problematic. 

Therefore, a large amount of bioplastics that we have now end up in landfills. And without enough oxygen to break them down, the plastics can last for a long time and release methane. If thrown into the environment, the negative impacts they have are similar to PET plastic. 

According to Rebecca Burgess, CEO of City to Sea, a UK environmental nonprofit, “They are basically the same as plastic and don’t decompose in the way most people think they do. … Reducing the amount of single-use packaging we use is the only solution.” 

In spite of the suggested disadvantage of bioplastics, large companies haven’t stopped implying that their bioplastics will solve the problem. So far, they use terms like “plant-based” or “bio-based” or “compostable,” which are vague when it comes to the actual ability for the plastics to crack the problem. 

Moreover, experts argue that 100% plant-based bottle may not be good in the future. Sugars used to make bioplastic often comes from crops, and these crops take land out of production that is needed to feed a growing global population. There will be a significant increase in agriculture land, damaging the environment nonetheless. 

Pew’s recent report author Simon Reddy said, “There isn’t a silver bullet. It’s about designing products for recycling. The information on the label about plastics is vague and unintelligible. The recyclability should be first and foremost. 


PLA cups. Photo by Cmglee Wikimedia Commons


Current alternatives in development 

PHA bioplastic, as mentioned, is made from sugars grown in algae. Compared to PLA which generally requires mechanical recycling and has the potential to contaminate waste stream, PHA has no impact on food production. 

Alas, PHA production is still expensive. It’ll take long, long years before this type of plastic can be scaled up to a level that substantially decreases the cost. 

Of course, some other companies have used alternatives to conventional PET bottles nowadays, albeit on a small scale.  

Carlsberg, for instance, has stated that the company has spent five years developing a paper bottle lined with bioplastic. Johnnie Walker says that it will release a plastic-free paper bottle for a limited-edition run of its whiskey. 

Furthermore, Avantium, a leading Dutch sustainable chemistry company, together with Coca-Cola has announced the development of a 100% plant-based bottle made from PEF (polyethylene furanoate), which is produced from sugars 

Per the chemistry company, the bottle is better than PET as a container for soda and other products and breaks down completely in a year in a composting facility, and in a few years in the natural environment. 

Because it sounds a little too good to be true, these claims are of course met by skepticism from experts. Skeptics argued that Avantium needs to publish the specifics of its claim before its technology can be considered a viable solution. 

The need for more recycling and recycled materials 

Some experts still believe that the current efforts and developments only represent small steps compared to the growth in demand for plastic containers, especially in moderate or low-income countries with minimum recycling systems. 

Until today, the global packaging system still favors the use of new plastic made from cheap oil, as opposed to recycled plastic—one with more price tag.  

Narayan said, “As long as we continue to produce virgin resin, recycling will never happen. Brand owners — Coca-Cola and Pepsi — need to say they will not sell water or juice in a bottle that does not contain recycled content, irrespective of the cost. The pop bottle of the future will still be the current PET bottle. It does a great job. But we need the ability to collect it and recycle it and recycle it. That is the future.” 



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