Plastics are bad. But are alternatives worse?

Article by Isabel Key and Mina Frost.

BIOPLASTICS have been hailed by some as a solution to the plastic problem [1,3]. They look and feel similar to conventional plastic, but are made from renewable resources, such as corn starch, instead of oil [3]. In theory they have two advantages: rapid breakdown, and a low carbon footprint [1,2]. Is this true?

Do they DEGRADE? Sometimes, and not that quickly. In theory, bioplastics should degrade into natural materials which do not pollute the environment [3]. However, they often last for years in soil or seawater [4,9,10], or leave toxic chemicals behind [3]. Some break down in industrial composting facilities, but not in garden compost heaps or landfill [3].

What about their CARBON FOOTPRINT? Bioplastics can have a lower carbon footprint than most plastic [8,16] because they are made from plants: the plants took in CO2 from the atmosphere through photosynthesis, which is then released again when the bioplastic breaks down [12,17]. While this is carbon neutral, there are some CO2 emissions production process to make bioplastics [12].

The plants grown to make bioplastic take up farmland that could be used to grow food [3]; this can result in deforestation to grow more crops [16,18], causing release of CO2 from forests [19]. One study showed that replacing all plastic with bioplastic would take up to 219 million hectares of land (61% of all free arable land) [16]. Luckily, not all bioplastic requires extra land, such as that made from farm waste [13,14].

Another alternative is BIODEGRADABLE plastics, which (like plastic) are made from oil [3]. They are very different from bioplastic, despite the similar name! They are not really any better than normal plastic [6,7]. They degrade faster, but not into natural materials, and produce just as much methane in landfills [3,15].

In the future we will likely have much more planet-friendly plastics [10,11,5]. However, for now, using the popular alternatives is no excuse for wastefulnes [20]. Perhaps the problem is not plastic, but our wasteful use and careless disposal of it.

References

[1] https://www.explainthatstuff.com/bioplastics.html

[2] http://www.theenergyofchange.com/advantages-bioplastics

[3] https://www.explainthatstuff.com/bioplastics.html

[4] https://www2.mst.dk/Udgiv/publications/2018/02/978-87-93614-73-4.pdf

[5] https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2018/11/are-bioplastics-made-from-plants-better-for-environment-ocean-plastic/

[6] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/apr/29/biodegradable-plastic-bags-survive-three-years-in-soil-and-sea

[7] https://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/acs.est.8b06984#

[8] https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11367-019-01664-0

[9] https://pubs.acs.org/doi/full/10.1021/acs.est.8b06984

[10] https://pubs.rsc.org/en/content/articlelanding/2017/cs/c7cs00149e/unauth#!divAbstract

[11] https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0734242X16683272

[12] https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/mrs-bulletin/article/carbon-footprint-of-bioplastics-using-biocarbon-content-analysis-and-lifecycle-assessment/59AD1FC1309EB68DC5849F2BDD4D888C

[13] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/275413122_Production_of_biodegradable_plastic_from_agricultural_wastes

[14] https://goexplorer.org/biodegradable-plastic-from-waste-materials/

[15] https://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es504258u?source=cen

[16] https://www.utwente.nl/en/et/wem/education/msc-thesis/2018/putri.pdf

[17] https://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/green-science/future-of-bioplastics2.htm

[18] http://sci-hub.tw/https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18079382

[19] https://www.carbonfootprint.com/deforestation.html

[20] https://www.fauna-flora.org/news/no-thing-plastic-free-lunch

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