Bioplastics have developed strongly over the past 15 years. Some of them are highlighted for their capacity to biodegrade quicker than conventional plastics, while others are praised for their level of biosourced materials. However, are they virtuous enough to be a sustainable alternative?
Bioplastics : what are we talking about, exactly?
Advertisers and marketers increase their efforts in order to seduce consumers who want to reduce their environmental impact. «Biodegradable cleaning wipes», «Toilet paper tubes which can be flushed down the toilet», «Edible cans rings that feed fishes», «Plastic made from seaweed». Each day, bioplastics are praised and focus is made on their so-called advantages in terms of biodegrability or their non-dependancy to fossil fuels, for biosourced materials. Those plastics of the futur – biodegradable plastic, biosourced plastic or both biodegradable and biosourced plastic – are presented by manufacturers as a serious alternative to conventional plastics. By reducing environmental impact, they would be used to filled in cosmetics and detergents shelves, by replacing bags, bottles and conventional packaging.
This way, consumers would be lost in the race for greenwashing… Indeed, biosourced plastic does not mean bio labellised, it just means its raw materials are not from fossil fuels. Thus, on the market can be found plastic made from starch extracted from cereals (wheat or corn), potatoes, glucose derived from starch or vegetal oil. However, the growing of the plant or seeds used as raw materials has often a strong environmental impact. Replacing a fossil resource with a natural one brings us back to the debate about biofuels: the intensive cultivation of arable land for their production, too often via transgenic plants, is not desirable either.
Surfrider tested in its premises the biodegradability of a bioplastic bag certified “OK Compost Home” in its worm composter. After more than 3 months, the bag remains entire and does not seem to present any major degradation.
What is the problem with bioplastics/bio-sourced plastics?
A bioplastic is not necessarily meant to go on your compost! Indeed, the origin of the raw materials used to manufacture the final container says nothing about its ability to degrade or not in the environment. A biodegradable plastic is not necessarily biosourced and vice versa. In France, the regulation on disposable plastic bags only forces manufacturers to a minimum incorporation of biosourced materials. Thus the timetable provided by the State is as follows:
– 30% of biosourced material from the 1st of January 2017
– 40% from 1 January 2018
– 50% from 1 January 2020
– 60% from 1 January 2025
Sea or streams are the worst conditions for decomposition of waste materials, biosourced or not. Therefore in those environments, those plastics have the same negative impact as conventional plastics. Several months or years are needed before they completely disappear and in the meantime, sea creatures can be confused in terms of food. Moreover, those plastics accumulate in ocean floors and therefore might kill biodiversity.
So, is the consumer being fooled or not?
At least, it is clear that some manufacturers misuse consumers’ ecological awareness. Recent studies give proofs on positive impact of bioplastics on environment. However, we can fear that those marketing arguments impact on a large number of consumers, some of them being tempted to throw waste into wildlife rather than recycling it.
Before promoting bioplastics, we rather support use of reusable contenants such as eco-refills, tote bags or water bottles. Obviously, the first eco-friendly behaviour is to sort plastic waste and reuse bags which are still being distributed in some stores. We also recommend to reduce as much as possible our plastic consumption, by encouraging use of natural materials, bulk foods, glass contenants or reusable glass contenants. Although still given in some stores, we invite our community to refuse any bags or packaging handed by the shopkeepers.
For more information on Surfrider’s views, read our news on Bioplastics.