Bioplastics: A non-living Saviour and Warrior

Plastics are an integral part of our everyday life. We can find plastics in everything from the clothes we wear, the cars we drive to the homes we live in. What makes plastic so useful is that it is an extremely versatile material that has the ability to form and be moulded into a variety of products and applications. They are also lightweight, strong, and durable. It would be hard to imagine a world without them. But this need is exactly what makes them a problem. Plastics have gotten out of control and are now ransacking our environment and its different ecosystems.

Conventional plastics, made from petroleum products, such as crude oil and natural gas, are meant to last for centuries. Since the 1950s, over 9 billion tons of plastic waste have been produced, with only 9% of it totally recycled while the rest ending up as waste. Because plastics are durable and take centuries to degrade, this has led to their accumulation, increasing their carbon footprint and affecting different ecosystems. This puts the load on carbon sinks of nature (oceans and forests) and harms our habitat in a variety of ways — from acidification of sea water, destruction of corals, molluscs, algae, phytoplankton to altered and elimination of a part of aquatic life and their disturbed food chain balance. Also, residual carbon increase leads to enhanced green-house gases, global warming, forest fires, acidic rains, glacier meltdown, among other harmful global impacts. Such phenomena are not limited to the future but are a part of the present reality as you read this. Therefore, it’s high time that we track our actions and be accountable for the ‘earth’ that we have. Let’s have an embarkment on this huge tirade of different plastics and how bioplastics bring a sigh of relief.

TYPES OF BIOPLASTICS

‘Bioplastics’ (biobased) are generally derived from renewable organic materials, such as olive pits (BIOLIVE) or from other biomass sources, such as organic waste (PHABIO), corn starch, sugars or vegetable fats as well as many others instead of petroleum. Bioplastics can have exactly the same properties as conventional plastics. In fact, Bioplastics can be used and moulded into a variety of products and applications. Bioplastics are also lightweight and strong. However, unlike conventional plastics, bioplastics can be biodegradable and are derived from renewable sources.

Bioplastics can be grouped into three (3) main categories:

1. Biobased– Such material is fully or partially derived from biomass (plants or organic matter that is renewable). The biomass could have undergone physical, chemical or biological treatment. Depending on the resource, the product may be biodegradable under certain conditions. However, not all biobased plastics are biodegradable. Those biobased products which take longer to degrade are called ‘durable’ bioplastics. Some of these bioplastics are eligible to be recycled with like conventional plastics.

2. Biodegradable/Compostable– Biodegradable plastics break up when exposed to microorganisms. The resulting mixture is water, carbon dioxide (or methane) and biomass under specified conditions.

a. Compostable Bioplastics are a type of biodegradable plastics. These are designed to degrade in specific environments from your backyard, a marine environment, sunlight, or in an industrial grade or commercial composting facility.

i. Industrial compostable plastics can only be broken down by microorganisms in high heat environment. Compostable plastics must meet certain standards. In Europe, the product must degrade within 12 weeks.

ii. Home compostable– Some bioplastics are home compostable. This means that customers simply can place packaging in the home compost bin along with fruits and vegetable to decompose into organic soil. There are currently no international standards for home composting plastics.

3. Biobased & Biodegradable– As you can see from the chart below, certain biobased plastics are also biodegradable. For example, PLA (polylactic acid) can be made from extracting sugar from plants like corn, sugarcane, potatoes, wheat and tapioca via a bacterial fermentation process. PLAs can only biodegrade under Industrial composting conditions, usually ranging from a few days to a few months. PHAs on the other hand (polyhydroxyalkanoates), are biobased biodegradable plastics produced by fermentation from a range of feedstocks, including waste. They completely biodegrade in a span of few weeks to a few months in any compost facility, whether it’s home or industrial. PHAs can also degrade in marine environments.

Interrelationship Between Conventional, Biobased, Biodegradable Plastics

So, in the current article we briefly understood about certain materials known as ‘Bioplastics’ and in what aspects are they the better alternative to conventional plastics. Currently, while bioplastic production require new facilities and may be slightly more expensive than petroleum-based plastics, it’s quite evident that once petrol supplies tighten in different countries and the governments enforce plastic ban laws, businesses will be forced to go ahead with the only alternatives they will have at hand- ‘Bioplastics’. But, not all of them are waiting for such do or die situation. A lot of businesses have already started investing in this feat and are reaping benefits along with social recognition and applaud. We will briefly throw some light on the Bioplastics market in next couple of posts. Stay tuned!