Are bioplastics the green solution we have been waiting for?
The fight against plastic pollution calls for a wide-ranging approach. Despite concerted efforts to improve recycling, reduce consumption, and reuse materials, the transition to a circular economy has not kept pace with the growth of plastic production. In the search for impactful solutions, can “replace” offer a new path to a green future?
Sustainable alternatives to fossil-based plastics such as bioplastics have existed for some time, so why are we not seeing more of them? The reality is that bioplastics are not as straightforward a solution as some might think. Firstly, bioplastics come in many forms; some are biodegradable, and some are not. Furthermore, questions around the true sustainability of bioplastics continue to emerge, due to the complexity of the material. Finally, there remains a fundamental lack of understanding around what to do with bioplastics after use, leading to mismanagement upon disposal and further complications.
Until we tackle these barriers, enthusiasm for bioplastic alternatives is unlikely to translate into significant steps forward in our pursuit of a greener future.
Growing production in Asia but more clarity required
While the bioplastics industry has been growing steadily in recent years, global production capacity today - estimated at 2.4 million metric tonnes - is only a fraction of the 367 million metric tonnes of plastic manufactured annually. Asia represents a major production hub, with almost 50 percent of all bioplastics currently being manufactured in the region, a figure that is predicted to grow to 70 percent by 2026.
International standards for production are primarily managed through regional bodies such as the American Society for Testing and Materials, International Organization for Standardization and CEN – the European Committee for Standardization. At the national level in Asia, innovation in production is often supported as part of countries’ waste reduction and plastics management plans. India’s Plastic Waste Management (Amendment) Rules announced in February 2022, for example, defines “biodegradable plastics” and how Extended Producer Responsibility applies to the material. Although some countries are recognising the opportunities presented by the industry, progress in the region is by no means consistent and importantly, regulations on the management and disposal of bioplastics are still lagging.
A “whole-of-life” take on the sustainability of bioplastics
Nonetheless, continued innovation in production technologies and supportive policies signal a positive future for the bioplastics industry. To accelerate efforts, more attention needs to be paid to the processes and raw materials required for extraction.
Bioplastics can be produced from a range of renewable biomass sources such as vegetable fats and oils, corn starch, straw, woodchips, sawdust and even recycled food waste. Some may require more resource-intensive raw materials and manufacturing processes, resulting in higher environmental impacts. To maximize the material’s benefits, priority should be given to next-generation feedstocks that have lower life cycle impacts, such as food crops suitable for consumption; non-food cellulosic crops; algae, agricultural by-products and waste streams. Moving forward, the expansion of bio-based production should be assessed from a “whole-of-life” perspective, to gain a clear picture of potential sustainability risks and trade-offs.
Businesses must proactively tackle consumer confusion
Given the trade-offs inherent in the production process of some bioplastics, there is widespread confusion among consumers about its true sustainability. A key contributor to this confusion is the use of terms such as “bio-based”, “biodegradable” and “compostable.” They are at times used interchangeably, however, do not mean the same thing.
Products marketed as “biodegradable” may be tossed into backyard compost bins by well-meaning consumers, only to find that not all bioplastics break down in the same manner. In fact, the degree and speed at which they are able to decompose is dependent on the external environment, such as the prevalence of microbes and temperature. Adding to the confusion, despite being marketed as a solution to plastic pollution, a growing body of evidence suggests that oxo-degradable plastics disintegrate into microplastics, which are harmful in themselves once leaked into the environment.
With the sector still in nascency and information not readily available, businesses need to play an active role in ensuring they are kept up to date on the latest regulations and industry standards to accurately unpack the complexity of bioplastics and minimize confusion. Open-source learning resources, such as Circularity Concepts, an initiative of The Incubation Network and RRS Asia, can also help to bolster knowledge of new and emerging issues, materials, policies, and technologies in the sector. The series touches on the differences between bio-based, biodegradable and compostable plastics as well as the regulatory environment and guidance that exists for claims, such as material content certifications, and biodegradability and compostability schemes around the world.
Enabling adequate end-of-life
Brands must take responsibility for their products across the entire lifecycle, including the disposal phase, to prevent harm to the environment. Although biodegradability is an advantage, most bioplastics available today need high-temperature industrial composting facilities to decompose efficiently and very few countries have the required infrastructure.
If simply buried in landfills, these products are likely to produce methane and cause further environmental damage. As an added complication, some bioplastics pose contamination risks to the mechanical recycled supply chain. Widespread adoption of these products must be preceded by education, such as providing explicit on-pack instructions about the disposal environment needed for a product to biodegrade, to ensure adequate post-use management. Bioplastics may not be the green savior that will change the current model of environmentally damaging consumerism, but as the world seeks credible alternatives to plastics, more innovation and growth of the sector are expected. Their efficacy will ultimately depend on how businesses and policymakers can work together to support the industry and enable consumers to make the right choices across the life cycle. Further, given their complexity, bioplastics must be continuously studied and evaluated, in order to ensure viability – both commercially and to the environment – in the long run.
The article was first published in Sustainable Plastics and Plastics News.
 European Bioplastics, nova-institute (2021); Plastics Europe