Biomass derived plastics are commonly called “bioplastics.” The IUPAC considers this misleading because it suggests that any bioplastic is “environmentally friendly.” However, not all plastics and bioplastics are created equal in terms of environmental friendliness.
There is no simple answer. There are many different types of plastics and bioplastics. We need to start by explaining what plastic actually is. To do that we need to explain the basics of the different types of plastic and how they are made. But beyond how they are made, how different plastics break down is just as important in terms of environmental friendliness.
What actually is plastic?
All of the different plastics are either made from polymers from either petrochemicals or biomass:
Petrochemicals are the most commonly used in producing plastic, and as the name suggests, are derived from petroleum. Petroleum is not only a product of the crude oil industry, but the natural gas industry as well. Surprisingly, 85% of plastic produced in the USA is derived from natural gas instead of crude oil now because the price of natural gas is currently significantly cheaper (due to the fracking industry). Crude oil and natural gas are abundant substances, but not renewable ones. Both natural gas and crude oil are fossil fuels, but natural gas emissions are significantly less than oil. As you have probably heard, there are many pollution issues associated with the extraction process, refining process, and burning/using fossil fuels for energy. In defense to this type of plastic, it uses a byproduct (not oil or natural gas directly) of the natural gas and oil industry that if not used to make plastic is usually just burned off – also releasing greenhouse gases.
Biomass derived plastics are created from renewable biomass sources and are referred to as bioplastic. The most commonly used biomass sources for plastic production are vegetable fats and oils, corn starch, and pea starch. However, bioplastics can be made from any starches, cellulose, biopolymers, as well as a variety of other materials. Most recently, bioplastic has also started to be produced from the biopolymers Chitin and Chitosan, which are fibers that can be extracted from crab and shrimp shells – a byproduct of the crab and shrimp industry. We should also mention that there are a lot of “blends” of bio and petro plastics out there, and these materials can sometimes be simply labeled as bioplastics. Furthermore, there is much debate surrounding the sustainability of GMO’s, pesticides, insecticides, and other chemicals sometimes used in growing the plant based biopolymers.
How do these different plastics break down?
All plastics, including biomass and petroleum-derived plastics, are technically “biodegradable.” This means they can be degraded under some kind of suitable condition to smaller pieces (eventually). Of course, this does not mean they are all even close to being environmentally friendly nor are they equally biodegradable. In fact, being biodegradable does not even mean that all parts actually break down.
Both petrochemical and bioplastics are not necessarily compostable, even if “biodegradable.”
According to Sustainable Plastics, “While many bioplastics are certifiable as compostable in commercial compost facilities, not all can be home composted and not all are biodegradable in the marine environment. Furthermore, a number of petrochemical-based polymers are certified biodegradable and compostable. Biodegradability is directly linked to the chemical structure, not to the origin of the raw materials.”
Concern is mounting because the new generation of biodegradable plastics ends up on landfill sites, where they degrade without oxygen, releasing methane, a greenhouse gas 23 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. So once again, being biodegradable does not mean eco-friendly!
Confused? Unfortunately, it gets even worse. Beyond ‘biodegradable’ and ‘compostable’, these “eco-friendly” plastic products may be labeled as oxo-biodegradeable, hydro-biodegradable, photo-biodegradable or water soluble, which only speaks to the chemical process by which these plastics break down. None of these labels (often marketed as sustainable) indicate whether a plastic is bio or petro based.
It is true that some plastics take over a century to break down in the environment, which is obviously not ideal. As mentioned, there have been many scientific break through in developing additives for any type of plastic that can cause them to break down faster and in more ways (in lament terms: from sunlight, from lack of oxygen, from being exposed to oxygen, from heat, from water, and more).
In the case of plastic, being compostable is more important than having a biodegradable label. Even if we, “the market,” start to demand more plastics that degrade quicker, we need to also consider what it is broken down into when it degrades.
What do the different plastics break down to?
Wouldn’t it be great if there were a simple labeling system that allowed you to know whether a plastic is eco-friendly?
All petrochemical plastics, being petroleum based, contain toxins that poison the environment they degrade in. However, bioplastics may or may not be toxic as well! This means that even though they are created from renewable and natural sources, they can still contaminate the environment.
This means ideally we would use using non-toxic, compostable, bioplastics.
What is the future?
According to scientists at the Wyss Institute at Harvard University, the Chitosan bioplastics they developed in March of 2014 may be the first fully degradable (aka compostable), completely non-toxic, functional plastic created.
As mentioned earlier, Chitin, or Chitosan, is a fiber in crab and shrimp shells, insects and more. It is the second most abundant polymer in the world, only behind cellulose in plants. If it comes from a sustainably harvested source, it is completely eco-friendly since it is a byproduct of the crab and shrimp food industry that is usually wasted.
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