Bioplastics - solution to our plastic problem or not?

Bioplastics seem to be a good alternative in times when plastics are considered as the public enemy number one. However, many question marks are popping up regarding this new material. Do they actually degrade in nature? What happens if I throw them in recycling bin for plastics? What about the environmental impact of bioplastics’ production?


To answer these questions, we decided to invite experts and ask them in our debate called “Bioplastics - yes or no?"   

The discussion was focusing on the usage of bioplastics in packaging industry. The topic was discussed by a producer, a researcher and an ecologist. As such, we got the opinion of someone who actually develops and creates the material, someone who knows what happens in the compost/soil when we throw it away and also from someone, who manufactures and sells bioplastic products. 

In this article, we bring you the overview of the learnings from this debate.


The guests were: Ing. Hynek Beneš, Ph.D., Institute of Macromolecular Chemistry, Czech Academy of Sciences RNDr. Petra Innemanová, Ph.D., Institute of Environmental studies, Charles University, DEKONTA, a.s. František Kessner - CEO of Bioplaneta


In the very beginning, the term bioplastics was explained, because - let’s face it - many of us actually don’t know what a bioplastic is or looks like. 

It is necessary to distinguish between bioplastics and bio-degradable plastics. The term bioplastics typically comprises both types, although there’s a significant difference between these two. Bioplastics are made from natural resources such as corn or potato starch, sugar cane etc. and they can (but don’t have to!) be bio-degradable. On the other hand, bio-degradable plastics can be made from both natural resources and fossil fuels (oil) and always degrade in certain conditions.

 

Do bioplastics degrade in nature or in a regular compost? 

Common bioplastics, such as PLA (polylactic acid) degrade only in an industrial compost with special conditions (e.g. certain temperature and humidity, number of microorganisms etc.). They won’t degrade in a regular home compost or in plain nature.

 

Where do I throw away bioplastics then?

If bioplastics don’t degrade in a home compost, where do we throw them? Well, that’s a difficult question. Proper infrastructure such as the brown trash bins for organic waste and industrial composts are currently missing in the Czech Republic. 


What happens when I throw them in the recycling bin for plastics? 

When we put bioplastics in the yellow recycling bin thinking that it’s plastic too, right? we can actually mess up the whole amount of to-be recycled plastics. When the percentage of bioplastics in the yellow bin surpasses a certain limit, it can spoil the whole recycling batch which can eventually lead to a lower amount of recycled waste. The current system of manual sorting on the separation lines is not able to divide the bioplastics and conventional plastics properly before they get recycled.  

Therefore, in case you don't have the organic waste bin, it seems that the best option is to throw the bioplastics in the regular waste bin - in case that this waste is going to be incinerated and used for energy.


Do bioplastics help to reduce littering? 

Partially yes - in case of 100% degradable materials. Nevertheless, if consumers start to believe that since it is “bio”, all bioplastics can be thrown away in nature and they will degrade, littering will be even worse. A significant part of bioplastics (e.g. bio-PET) do not degrade nearly at all and they can leave traces of microplastics in the soil. 


What is the environmental impact of bioplastics’ production?

In terms of energy used, bioplastics’ production is not so harmful. 

However, as it was said before, bioplastic are typically made from corn or potato starch and the crop production itself might have negative impacts on the environment. Apart from land and water, the cultivation requires lot of pesticides and other chemical substances. Moreover, larger demand for crops (which are in this case used not only for food, but also for bioplastics production) can lead to intense agricultural practices (monocultures), that have long-term negative impacts on our nature.