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What are bioplastics and are they better for the environment? 

Written by MS
09/08/2021 10:00:20

Plastic waste. Sustainability. Environmentally-friendly. Single-use plastics. Climate change. These are just some of the buzzwords we have all gotten used to hearing and discussing over the previous years as the world begins to come to terms with its plastic consumption - and the impact this has on the planet. 
It is thought that, globally, we produce over 300 million tonnes of plastic per year - half of which is in the form of single-use plastics. Over the past year, the manufacturing of single-use plastics has necessarily been on the rise as items - such as surgical masks and PPE - have been vital to helping us fight the COVID-19 pandemic. The question remains, however, what are we going to do about all this waste? 
For some, the answer is bioplastics or bio-based plastic alternatives that naturally degrade faster than petroleum-based plastics. In this latest blog from The Plastic People, we are going to take a deep dive into the world of bioplastics and ask key questions such as whether they are the environmental solution we need. 
What are bioplastics?
‘Bioplastics’ is a catch-all term for any plastic that is made from plant or biological material - rather than petroleum. As previously mentioned, these plastics are also sometimes called bio-based plastic.
The primary difference between the materials labelled ‘bioplastic’ and those labelled ‘bio-based' are how biodegradable they are. Simply put, bioplastics are almost always biodegradable, but many bio-based plastics are not. We will return to this point a little later on when we take a look at how environmentally friendly bioplastics are. 
Over the past decade, consumers have begun to demand greener alternatives for everyday products, resulting in the development of more and more bioplastics. Most commonly, research and manufacturing are focused on a few key plastic items which are typically single-use - such as plastic bottles, coffee cups, and food packaging. 
How are bioplastics made?
There are now dozens of different bioplastics and bio-based plastics being produced around the world, from a range of unique biological materials. We are going to focus on the two most common bioplastics in production at the moment: PLAs and PHAs. 
PLA refers to a thermoplastic polymer known as Polylactic acid, which is extracted from the sugar in certain renewable plants like corn and sugarcane. PLAs typically have similar characteristics to polypropylene and polyethene, and they are fairly efficient and cost-effective to produce as the machinery required is already widely used. They are the second most common bioplastic after PHAs. 
PHAs make up around 5% of the world’s plastic production and consumption at the moment. These bioplastics are known as polyhydroxyalkanoates, which is a polyester naturally produced by microorganisms in the form of starch. PHAs are incredibly versatile as they can be joined with over 150 different types of monomers to create plastics with a variety of characteristics. 
Most often, you will come across PLAs in food packaging and other consumer products as they are cheap to produce. While PHAs are reserved most commonly for use in medical equipment as this plastic material is typically used in the injection moulding process. 
Are bioplastics better for the environment?
Now comes the more difficult question: are bioplastics better for the environment? Like most things when it comes to sustainability, the answer is not clear. 
Starting with PLAs, this bioplastic is recyclable, biodegradable, and compostable. That means any plastic bags, bottles, or other packaging made from PLAs will break down into biomass over time, which can be reused. For instance, a plastic bottle made from a PLA will decompose in the ocean after 6-24 months, while some petroleum-based single-use plastics can take hundreds of years. 
There is, of course, a caveat. Businesses can and do sell straws and bottles made from PLA with the promise that they are compostable items. Nevertheless, PLAs require industrial composting conditions to properly decompose, which includes a constant temperature above 58 degrees celsius - not something that is easily replicated in the ocean or at home. 
When it comes to PHAs, even stricter conditions must be met. In tropical climates and warm waters, this plastic can degrade successfully within one to two months, but in cold and arctic temperatures, this increases to decades. 
Therefore, while PLAs and PHAs can be biodegradable, the conditions are not always met. Further research and development need to be conducted to create new super-biodegradable plastics, which are not so dependent on environmental factors such as temperature. Bio-based plastics - the cousin of bioplastics - are not necessarily biodegradable. Many bio-based plastics take as long as conventional plastics to decompose naturally. 
A further solution lies in our methods of recycling and waste management. At the moment, in the UK, we do not have the facilities to deal with large quantities of bioplastics. At home, too, this would require consumers to separate their plastics into different bins depending on their material composition. 
Should we keep producing bioplastics?
Even though the technology may not be at its most efficient yet, we should continue to work with and develop bioplastics and bio-based plastics. While successful material decomposition may be one of the many challenges this industry of sustainable solutions faces, bioplastics and bio-based plastics do allow us to reduce our consumption of non-renewable resources such as petroleum. 
The production process for both PLAs and PHAs requires less energy than conventional plastics, and they typically contain fewer additives that can harm our health. There is, then, a bright side to the world of bioplastics and bio-based plastics. 
Reduction, however, remains our primary port of call against plastic pollution. We should all be looking to reduce our consumption of single-use plastics that end up inevitably in landfill sites and the oceans. 
That brings us to the end of this blog on the world of bioplastics and sustainability. If you have any topics you would like us to cover in a future guide, get in touch today! Our Instagram and Twitter accounts are @barkstonplastic, or you can message us on Facebook by clicking here
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