Plastic pollution, which is sometimes called “white pollution,” is a major problem despite the large number of individuals who recycle and the increasing number of items that are being created from recyclable plastic. In an effort to reduce the amount of plastic that is discarded into our landfills, innovative bioplastics have been introduced in the form of products ranging from trash bags to biodegradable water bottles. As more progress is made, bioplastic technology is continuing to evolve in order to curb the problem of white pollution.
Benefits of Bioplastics
There are a number of benefits to using bioplastic instead of traditional plastic. The chief benefit is that biodegradable plastic breaks down more easily once it is discarded. Traditionally, biodegradable plastics were composed of biomass, which is a renewable resource. This organic compound is made from trees grass and other organic materials that easily decompose. On the other hand, the production of traditional plastic relies heavily on the use of fossil fuels during the manufacturing process, which essentially adds to environmental pollution. Biodegradable plastics do not rely on the same method of production, thereby producing fewer greenhouse gases and emissions.
In addition, biodegradable plastics do not contain chemicals and other harmful additives that can be released during the breakdown process. This is also beneficial, because as bioplastic breaks down into the earth, it is not releasing harmful chemicals into the ecosystem. The ease of recycling bioplastics is solely dependent on whether or not they are properly recycled in the first place.
In order for a material to be certified as bioplastic, it must first undergo a rigorous certification process through the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI), an organization that consists of representatives from academia, industry, and government who support the process of recycling biodegradable materials through composting. BPI certification specifies that a bioplastic product should rapidly disintegrate during composting. A breakdown under composting conditions should not adversely impact the integrity of the compost, and it should not contain large amounts of metal.
The cost of BPI certification may be somewhat prohibitive, as it costs roughly $1,500 for products made from certified materials, but it can run as high as $4,500 for products made from untested or unproven materials. In addition to these fees, BPI certification requires licensing that comes at a cost of $3,000 every three years. Following the three-year period, the review process routine is repeated. Any testing that must be undertaken by a scientific lab is a separate expense, and the applicant is directly responsible for paying those expenses.
Challenges of Bioplastics
While bioplastic is much better for the environment, there are some disadvantages associated with this material. One of the most prominent drawbacks of bioplastic is the cost. The production of bioplastics requires the use of innovative production methods, and this cannot be undertaken by just any company. Any time that something has to be done using a specialized method, the cost will inevitably be higher.
In addition, bioplastics must be disposed of through composting in order to properly biodegrade. This seems somewhat counterintuitive given that those items were created from biodegradable materials that theoretically should decompose no matter how they are discarded. The reason for this is that many biodegradable plastics are composed of polylactic acid, or PLA. For this polymer to adequately break down, it must be exposed to water and heat, both of which are integral to the functioning of a compost pile. If PLA-based bioplastic is thrown into a recycling bin or mixed in with regular trash, it will not decompose properly. Bioplastics, which rely less on fossil fuels and regular plastics, use other natural resources including water in order to produce their components and aid in decomposition.
More Manufacturers Using Bioplastics in Their Packaging
At present, bioplastics comprise about 300,000 metric tons of the plastics market, according to European Bioplastics. While this number is high, it accounts for less than 1 percent of the 200 million tons of synthetic plastics that are produced annually. Manufacturers are beginning to utilize bioplastics in their packaging, which is a positive sign for the future of these alternative plastics. For instance, the Coca-Cola Company is one major company that uses bioplastics in the production of its 100 percent recyclable polyethylene terephthalate (PET) soda bottles.
The use of bioplastic remains a relatively new concept, and the industry is still learning about the material’s long-term use and processing, as well as recycling methods for these alternative plastics. There is still a great deal of research to be done in the industry, and it will be awhile before the cost of bioplastic goes down to levels that are comparable to traditional plastic. As more is learned about how to effectively produce and dispose of bioplastics—and as more people become educated about this material—then they will become more widely used.