Bioplastics – Not Good for the Environment After All?

NEW YORK - According to recent reports, bioplastics would conceivably be as bad – if not worse – for the environment than conventional plastics, news that is taking a lot of green advocates completely by surprise.

Bioplastics are plastics derived from renewable biomass sources, such as vegetable fats and oils, corn starch, straw, woodchips, food waste, etc. Bioplastic can be made from agricultural by-products and also from used plastic bottles and other containers using microorganisms. Common plastics, such as fossil-fuel plastics (also called petrobased polymers) are derived from petroleum or natural gas.

Although bioplastics are extremely advantageous because they reduce non-renewable consumption and GHG emissions, they actually pose several risks to the environment, reports say; some through their creation, and some through their disposal. One issue is the fact that, in order to grow the raw materials needed for the creation of bioplastic, vast amounts of farmland and water would be required – in addition to pesticide and fertilizer – which could lead to environmental issues. Bioplastics also increase eutrophication – runoff of excessive richness of nutrients that causes a dense growth of plant life and death of animal life from lack of oxygen – acidification, which is the ongoing decrease in the pH of the Earth's oceans caused by the uptake of carbon dioxide.

In addition, some bioplastics are made from the edible parts of crops; its creation can compete with food production because the crops that produce bioplastics can also be used to feed people, resulting in reduction of readily-available food sources for human beings.

Another issue is that not all bioplastics are biodegradable nor biodegrade more readily than commodity fossil-fuel derived plastics; instead, most current bioplastics are, instead, merely compostable and not biodegradable. Instead of harmlessly degrading if discarded, bioplastics will only break down into harmless biomass and gas within a few months if they are in the right environment for this to take place. If thrown away under more normal circumstances, bioplastics will actually break down as slowly as conventional plastics. But even when it does break down, acidity associated with its doing so will serve to pollute its surroundings to a degree, rendering its biodegradable status rather moot.

Soil and compost as environment conditions are more efficient in biodegradation due to their high microbial diversity. Composting not only biodegrades bioplastics efficiently but it also significantly reduces the emission of greenhouse gases.

However, bioplastics in soil environments need higher temperatures and a longer time to biodegrade. Some bioplastics biodegrade more efficiently in water bodies and marine systems; however, this causes danger to marine ecosystems and freshwater. Hence, it is accurate to conclude that biodegradation of bioplastics in water bodies which leads to the death of aquatic organisms and unhealthy water can be noted as one of the negative environmental impacts of bioplastics.

Conventional plastics, while still harmful to the environment and especially animals, nonetheless are largely an “aesthetic” problem; that is, they are non-reactive and because they do not break down in the way that bioplastics do, they cause no physical harm to ecosystems… only the inhabitants within it, unfortunately, which is still a major issue that must be addressed.

Instead, experts say, the better option is to simply recycle your conventional plastic regularly and without fail, while encouraging the industry to continue to innovate and refine its methods to increase efficiency and lessen environmental impact. One of the best ways to do that, experts say, is to eventually abolish single-use plastics altogether, which is one of the biggest contributors to the ongoing plastic crisis facing the planet today.