Is Bioplastic a Sustainable Solution?

Published on 06 Jan, 2021

Growing awareness of climate change and a need to promote sustainability have prompted the emergence of various initiatives to curb the use of plastic – branded the main culprit degrading the environment. Bioplastics is one such safety measure. It is an alternative to traditional plastic and is made of plant or other natural fiber. It could be the solution to eliminate plastic litter. However, bioplastic has its own set of problems. Unless steps are implemented to handle the challenges in its effective utilization, bioplastic could end up as just another ‘greenwashing’ product – something that only projects an image of sustainability and ecological responsibility.

Plastic has proved to be one of the main pollutants responsible for worldwide environmental degradation. Hailed as a great invention at the time of its advent, its resilience is now a constant threat to ecological stability. As plastic is not biodegradable, it clogs landfills and pollutes seas, thus choking marine life and polluting the air and soil. Researchers and organizations are exploring options for potential alternatives. One such solution is bioplastic.

As the name implies, bioplastic is biodegradable plastic made from fibrous plants, such as corn and sugarcane, by extracting sugars to convert into polylactic acids (PLAs). It can also made by polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs) generated through microorganisms. Other fibrous waste, such as avocado pits, leftover cooking oil, and even seaweed, can be converted into bioplastic and added to the list of potential feedstocks.

The most significant advantage of using bioplastic is the positive impact it can have on the environment. With a reduction in traditional plastic, landfills and oceans could gradually see less litter. As bioplastic does not use crude oil, the cost of raw material also declines. A notable shift in consumer consciousness towards brands and companies that follow sustainable environment-friendly production practices is another point that favors the use of bioplastic.

Despite the benefits it offers, there are questions raised about bioplastic’s ability to actually deliver on these. Is bioplastic actually as bad for the environment as traditional plastic? Some of these doubts about bioplastic are listed here:

  • Biodegradability – Very few bioplastics comprise 100 % biodegradable material. Several commercially available products contain 10–50% conventional plastic along with the bio-based polymers. These are deceptive and are often marketed as bioplastic.
  • Limited land availability – One of the key complaints against bioplastic is that it diverts arable land from food crops to grow raw material for bioplastic. As food shortage is a global issue, this forms a large obstacle in the large-scale adoption of bioplastic. Industrial agriculture increases pressure on arable land. It can also lead to water shortage and loss of habitat and biodiversity.
  • Limitation of PLA – PLA-derived bioplastic is extensively used to make shopping bags, 3D printing material, transparent cups, and other transient products. While PLA is recyclable and compostable, it requires certain conditions to be actually biodegradable. It cannot degrade in the sea or in any natural environment. If it does end up in the ocean, it could be as harmful as regular plastic.
  • Industrial compost site – Bioplastic needs industrial compost sites where it can be converted into degradable material. It has to be managed correctly and routed to specialized industrial composting or recycling facilities. PLA especially needs industrial composting facilities with temperatures above 136° Fahrenheit. Moreover, even in the best biodegradable conditions, some plastic will still escape biodegradation.
  • Other chemicals – Bioplastic is later mixed with chemicals to make a single plastic product. These chemicals can be harmful to humans or other organisms if released into the environment.
  • Use of fertilizers – To ensure fast crop growth, industrial farming for bioplastic deploys chemical fertilizers and pesticides, both of which end up polluting the soil and making the land inarable. Monoculture cropping is another ill effect of this type of farming.
  • Consumer awareness – Consumers need to learn the right way to dispose of bioplastic so it does not wind up with non-degradable garbage. Unless routed correctly, bioplastic can end up defeating the purpose it was designed for.

Doubts about bioplastic
One of the main issues against bioplastic is that the initial stages of recycling this material involve the same challenges as that faced in recycling regular plastic. The packaging design makes this task complex and labor-intensive. Features such as plastic sleeves on bottles, black plastic, or multiple layers lead to wastage of material that could have been better recycled. Apart from the recyclability issue, there is difficulty in separating and sorting biopolymers from synthetic plastics during the recycling and biodegradation process. Only the purest part bioplastic would actually degrade while the leftover synthetic fiber will continue to pollute the environment.

What is the solution?
There are alternatives to PLA-based biopolymers – such as biopolymers/biomaterials polysaccharides, lignin, animal or plant proteins, etc. – that can be used to produce bioplastics.

  • Biopolymers/biomaterials polysaccharides – Bioplastic can be made with polysaccharides such as chitin, cellulose, and chitosan. These are abundantly available and involve low production costs. Polysaccharides-based materials are already used to make fibers, films, food casing, and sponges. These are also utilized in industrial applications in sectors such as pharmaceuticals, food, biomedicals, and electronics.
  • Lignin – This is an organic substance present in plants such as straw. It is one of the most abundant resources on earth and is a non-commercialized waste product. Lignin is a great substitute for oil and vastly suitable for industrial production. Interestingly, it can also replace synthetic fiber in bioplastics, making the latter more durable and stronger.
  • Animal/plant protein – Farm waste can be a great source of animal or plant protein, which can also be used to create bioplastics. An unusual ingredient, the bloodmeal present in animal protein offers a cost-competitive, highly sustainable means to produce bioplastics.

Recent research has led to the development of a new material from spider silk and wood, which can outperform most natural and synthetic materials. It can resist non-reversible deformation, stretch without breaking, and is entirely biodegradable while also being petroleum-free. Similar materials are currently under research or are already in production and can well replace plastic entirely.

Bioplastic cannot be completely disregarded as a viable option, but further research and use of alternative materials are needed to make it more sustainable. If its shortcomings can be addressed, bioplastic could become the much-needed solution to the alarming environmental degradation the planet currently faces. Unless it is made more environment-friendly and viable to be properly disposed, it will fail to achieve its objective and may end up being branded a ‘greenwashing’ product.