Let's ban Bioplastics.
'Bioplastics' - they are becoming pretty popular and not least due to the the need for us to be shifting away from our use of the traditional everyday single-use stuff.
But, 'bioplastics' are not what they seem and are already being banned in parts of the world, with Australia leading the way. Here's why...
Single-use plastics were on the out, but the pandemic and our need for perceived cleanliness has seen our use of single-use plastic jump up significantly, mostly in the form of PPE, coffee cups and takeaway packaging. We have also seen the rise of the ‘Bio-plastic’ or ‘biodegradable’ and ‘compostable’ plastics, presented as ‘greener’ alternatives to the traditional plastic which we’ve seen to be so damaging to our seas (and more recently, ourselves.)
Bioplastics often come with a green logo, or a brown cardboard-like aesthetic which makes them look low-impact and far removed from the look of plastic that we are so used to - thin cheap, usually white. So, what are bio-plastics really? Are they actually better that the plastics we are so used to? It can be confusing and we are here to try and shed some light on why bioplastics are not the solution to single use plastics we had hoped for, and there is a real reason why countries around the world are already banning them.
A bit about bioplastics
For many years now (and with many thanks to educators and activists such as Sir David Attenborough), we have been waking up to the alarming facts of plastic waste. As ocean users and lovers, we now appreciate that our marine environments, the seas we sail, are full of plastic. Even in 2014 scientists had revealed an estimated 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic were floating in our seas, and with the majority of this ocean plastic coming from our life on land, it is important that we clean up our plastic act, wherever we are.
In the past few years there has been a huge fight against the use of single-use plastic. In 2020, the UK government, along with others, banned plastic straws and stirrers and plastic-stemmed cotton buds. Dr Laura Foster, Head of Clean Seas at the Marine Conservation Society, said
“In 2017 we found an average of 31 cotton bud sticks per 100 metres of beach, and in 2019 we found just eight on beaches in England. This reflects that many companies have already made the switch away from plastic, in cotton buds and other items, something we need to see more companies doing.”
The global COVID-19 pandemic, however, changed things again. Single-use plastics have, unfortunately, been used a lot more, for PPE in particular, but also with takeaways of food and coffees being one of the few normalities that have continued throughout most of our lockdowns. With many businesses looking to be more eco-friendly, many have switched to bioplastics, which are often sold as being both biodegradable and compostable.
These bioplastics often come with a green logo, or as natural-looking packaging. As product design goes, this is pretty effective at making us feel better about the containers we are using and that whatever we throw away won’t be impacting our environment when we throw it away a few minutes later.
However, bioplastics aren’t what they seem, and are not the solution to single-use plastics we had hoped for.
So what are bioplastics, really?
'Bioplastic' actually refers to a family of materials. According to European Bioplastics, a plastic material is defined as a bioplastic if it is either bio-based, biodegradable, or features both of these properties. Being bio-based means that the material or product is (partly) derived from biomass sources (plants such as corn, sugarcane or cellulose). For a bioplastic to be biodegradable, this relates to the chemical structure of the plastic. It allows a chemical process to take place during which microorganisms that are available in the environment convert the plastic into natural substances such as water, carbon dioxide, and compost.
Put a little more simply, even if the plastic is 100% bio-based it still may be non-biodegradable - confusing right? In fact, the marketing and labelling of bioplastics have been heavily criticised for being purposefully vague, confusing and with little scientific evidence to prove their ability to degrade. Bioplastic coffee cups and lids, cutlery, food containers, bin liners, shopping bags have been used everywhere and you have probably come across them without even realising.
The most common type is poly-lactic acid (PLA), this type of bioplastic is both bio-based and biodegradable. According to a lot of the marketing of bioplastics they hold all of the good qualities of traditional plastics such as being sturdy, durable, lightweight, cheap to produce and apparently, are better for the environment and have none of the bad qualities of polluting our environment with nasty microplastics or leaking unpleasant chemicals. Not entirely true.
Let’s unpack this a little further...
Compared to traditional plastics that are made from petroleum-based polymers, bio-based plastics or plant-based plastics are made from plant biomass such as starch, cellulose, or lignin. This means they do use a smaller amount of fossil fuel resources and have a smaller carbon footprint. Bioplastic has also been cited as being less toxic as they often do not contain bisphenol A (BPA), a hormone disrupter that is often found in traditional plastics. However, this is not the case for all bioplastic.
Being labelled ‘biodegradable’ and ‘compostable’ has given us all the thought that these coffee cups and takeaway containers can be littered, because they’ll break down like fruit skins would. What isn’t made clear it is that while advertised as biodegradable, or compostable all these items need to be composted in an industrial facility where the temperature, humidity and oxygen levels can be carefully controlled over time to effectively allow for the breakdown of these plastics, not in our garden compost bin.
Many experts have warned the UK, for example, currently lacks the industrial composters needed to handle compostable plastic waste. Fancy being sold products that can be biodegraded and composted, in a world where the industrial scale of these facilities doesn’t yet exist…
"While advertised as biodegradable, or compostable, all these items need to be composted in a tightly controlled industrial facility ...not in our garden compost bin. Currently, the majority is ending up in landfill."
Furthermore, despite their green and eco-friendly looking exteriors these items are still plastics and cannot break down in the environment, whether in our at-home compost heaps, our countryside or our seas. This means they continue to create just as many nasty long-lasting microplastics as traditional plastic does. This was demonstrated by researchers from the University of Plymouth’s International Marine Litter Research Unit - after three years within the ocean and buried in soil, ‘vegware’ biodegradable bags were still intact and able to hold shopping!
"If you see the word bioplastic, compostable or biodegradable we recommend you replace that word with ‘distractor’. These types of plastics promote a ‘business as usual’ approach to the plastic pollution crisis and do not address the main issue with plastic which is our overconsumption of plastic packaging and objects."
The complexities of bioplastics do not end there. Depending on your location and local recycling facilities some have even warned that they do not want bio-based plastic in the compostable recycling bins, or with traditional plastic recycling as these plastics contaminate composters, increasing the cost of processes and reducing the recyclability. Commercial composters also often sell the composted material to farmers for the production of certified organic foods – however, this cannot be done with compost that contains bio-plastics. Chemicals such as perfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS) are used to provide water and grease resistance in bioplastics which can transfer from compost to ground and surface waters, and then can be taken up by plants from compost and may threaten human and environmental health.
With all good intentions, bioplastics are not the perfect option to our plastic pollution crisis. If you see the word bioplastic, compostable or biodegradable we recommend you replace that word with ‘distractor’. These types of plastics promote a ‘business as usual’ approach to the plastic pollution crisis and do not address the main issue with plastic which is our overconsumption of plastic packaging and objects. In fact, labelling plastics with biodegradable, compostable and bioplastic has again been shown to encourage us to litter under the misconception that these materials are biodegradable.
While the structure of bioplastic options have some benefits over traditional plastics, there is still a lack of clear evidence showing they are greatly advantageous over traditional plastics, with very few disposal options and the long term effects of these plastics currently still seem similar to traditional plastics. It is a big greenwashing red flag.
Many countries are progressing to ban single-use plastics and with some countries, such as Australia, already banning bioplastics, which is promising, and there is certainly a need for greater transparency around what bioplastics are, how they should be correctly disposed of and how similar their impact on our environment is to the plastics we’ve already been using all along.
The best thing we can do? Use reusable products and stay away from the single-use stuff altogether!
For more tips on switching away from single-use plastic to better alternatives, see our feature here
For more about Microplastics and the impact on our environment and our own bodies, see our feature, ‘What we mean when we say: Microplastics’.