Are Bioplastics the Future of Plastics?
We all know about the issues we face with plastic, it is a material typically derived from petrol based chemicals and basically, do not degrade like normal materials. They are also not particularly well suited for recycling, though this has changed in the past decade.
While reducing our plastic use, and recycling plastic is the main factor in reducing the environmental impact of plastic, there is a growing interest in Bioplastics. Bioplastics are made from plant biomass, such as corn and hope to offer better sustainability and increased positive environmental impact.
But are Bioplastics as good as they sound?
One of the main selling points for Bioplastics is the raw materials used to generate it are more sustainably sourced than petroleum-based plastic. Abundant availability of raw materials for manufacturing bioplastics place less strain on resource supply, as well as cause less strain to the earth from sourcing processes.
However, Bioplastics still suffer some of the same issues as traditional plastic. They typically come in 2 forms, durable and biodegradable. In general, a durable bioplastic won’t degrade, which is quite important depending on its application. For example, Cola has developed the PlantBottle as a possible alternative to PET bottles and is made of 30% ethanol sourced from plant material. It won’t decompose though, which is quite important when storing acidic liquids such as Cola. It can, however, be recycled in the same manner a normal PET bottle can.
Obviously, the dream product is a biodegradable plastic, and these do exist, with PLA (polylactic acid) being increasing popular. PLA (polylactic acid) is a biodegradable and bioactive thermoplastic aliphatic polyester typically derived from renewable resources like corn starch, tapioca roots and sugarcane. PLA is popular in 3D printing in particular hobbyist style 3D printing.
While biodegradable plastic sounds amazing, in general, it is not quite as simple as it sounds high-temperature industrial composting facility, not your average household compost bin. For example, PLA is broken down by a bacterial called Amycolatopsis. The issue here is that in the US there are 200 industrial composting facilities but there are 50 million tonnes of organic waste still ending up in landfills across the country each year.
Until composting biodegradable plastic becomes more feasible its potential for success seems limited. On the other hand, durable Bioplastics that can be recycled in a similar manner to normal plastic provides a logical solution to manufacturing petrol based plastic.
Whatever the future of bioplastics the most important thing we can focus on is recycling current plastic and trying to reduce our reliance on it.