Do bioplastics do more harm than good?

Photo from Creative Commons

Bioplastics have become a recent trend in Sunchips commercials as they show off their new, more Eco-friendly bags. What goes into making bioplastics, and are they really all that much more Eco-friendly than normal plastics? This is something people should ask themselves before getting caught up in the bioplastics craze.

Bioplastics are very broad and vague, though all of them can be described as coming from a renewable biomass. Generally speaking, bioplastics are easier on the environment to produce as they release less carbon during production and require less energy to produce. Bioplastics also break down much more quickly than normal plastics, but the ways in which they break down vary by type. Some bioplastics are photo degradable, meaning they break down as a result of being in the sunlight for an extended period of time. Others respond to water content slowly absorbing it and gradually break down. As they do, bacteria can move in and easily eat the sugar-based plastic.

Bioplastics are made in many different ways, all of which utilize a renewable biomass as their source material. Polylactic acid-based bioplastic is formed from glucose. The process of taking the glucose and turning it into a polymer is fairly complicated. Once the glucose is in polymer form it has the advantage of being able to be molded and made into plastic on the same machines that are typically used in the normal plastic production process, making it one of the cheaper and more widespread means of producing bioplastics.

Poly-3-hydroxybutyrate (PHB) is produced from certain bacteria as they process and break down starch. PHB has the advantage of breaking down without leaving any residue, and it becomes a thin clear sheet when heated to 130 degrees Fahrenheit. The real advantage is its ability to break down without leaving any residue like the many other bioplastics that break down and leave byproducts in their wake.

Bio-derived Polyethylene is one of the few bioplastics which is not intended to be easy to break down. It is the same as the polyethylene that they use to make plastics, however, the main difference is how it is produced. This material is produced by fermenting agricultural feed stock such as corn and sugar cane. The claim is during the production of biopolyethylene it actually removes 2.5 tons of carbon from the air instead of producing 3.5 tons like the non-organic version of the plastic. It also has the advantage of being recyclable.

For all the good bioplastics promise or seem to do, there are still some major setbacks with the material that most people are not aware of. Almost all bioplastics are non-recyclable, and unlike some other plastics, are extremely difficult to identify from one type of plastic to another. At the moment there is very little to be done about the issue. The two options on the table are either too costly or unreliable to be put into practice. One option is to create an effective means of sorting the bioplastics out and also educating the public, along with making distinctive designs to help people identify the different types. Some bioplastics upon breaking down, while not producing carbon, do release methane into the air as a byproduct of the bacterias’ process of reducing them. Methane is thought to be a worse greenhouse gas than carbon.

Bioplastics have a great deal of potential at resolving the many issues we face when dealing with plastic, but they are still a long way from being a solution. In time though, perhaps they will be the answer for our dependency on plastics, thereby allowing us to have the convenience they provide without the harm they inflict on the environment.

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