Did you know that since 2000 there’s been more plastic produced than in all the previous years combined?1 And it’s estimated that over a third of this plastic will end up polluting our planet?
One of the proposed solutions to this crisis is re-inventing plastic and creating alternatives that are biodegradable. These alternatives, labelled broadly as bioplastic, are becoming more and more popular, with many researchers looking to create the best type of material for our planet.
What is bioplastic?
Simply put, bioplastic is a type of plastic made out of renewable, plant-based material or from another biological source which isn’t petroleum-based. Bioplastic can also be a plastic that is biodegradable, meaning it can be broken down by water, carbon dioxide or microorganisms when composted, with this process happening in a matter of weeks rather than months.
They’re used in a wide range of items from single-use products like packaging, bags, bottles, straws, containers and cutlery to non-disposable items like phone casings, medical implants, car insulation and plastic piping.
Types of bioplastics
Based on what they’re made from, there are two main types of bioplastics.
The first one is made from sugars extracted from corn, cassava or sugarcane, which are then converted into polylactic acids. The common terminology for this type of bioplastic is PLA.
The second type of bioplastic, PHA (polyhydroxyalkanoate), is made from microorganisms. These microorganisms are deprived of the nutrients they need to function and given high levels of carbon instead. The microorganism will then store the carbon in granules, which will then be harvested by the manufacturer as PHA.
These are the two most popular ways of manufacturing bioplastics, but the sky is the limit when it comes to innovation in this area. There are many researchers and companies that are trying to develop the best bioplastic and reduce waste, such as bioplastic made out of fish scales, skin or organic waste.
Is bioplastic eco-friendly?
On paper this solution sounds great, but in reality, bioplastics are far from becoming a solution adopted worldwide.
At the moment, in order to compost these bioplastics, they need to be heated at a very high temperature and cycling times are often longer than used in modern recycling facilities. Unfortunately not all areas have local facilities with the technology necessary to recycle this way. When this happens, the bioplastic ends up in landfills where they may release methane due to the lack of oxygen, which is a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide.
They can also contaminate batches of recycled, clean plastic which leads to this being discarded and sent back to the landfill. This is why bioplastics need to be recycled separately.
If bioplastics end up in our seas and oceans they will most of the time act just like normal plastic, breaking down in microscopic pieces and endangering marine creatures.
Another criticism is that in order to grow the necessary materials to make bioplastics you will need to take land away from food production.
Even though there are still multiple disadvantages to using bioplastics, the consumer demand for sustainable plastic alternatives is growing more and more, which is driving the technical innovation and research into this solution and others.
What other alternatives are there?
Bioplastics are just one piece of the plastic waste puzzle. To reduce the amount of plastic that’s currently produced globally, the problem needs to be tackled from multiple angles. A report from WWF1 outlines 5 steps that can be taken in order to solve the crisis.
First, the production of new plastic needs to be limited or cut completely. Secondly, we need to cut back on single-use plastics and overhaul this model so that everything can be reused or recycled. Efficient plastic management is also critical because when failing to dispose of plastic properly, it ends up polluting land or marine life. Recycling more plastic instead of incinerating it, and producing higher quality plastic for established secondary markets, is just as important.
The weDo approach
At weDo we’re following the principles of a circular economy, meaning our packaging is made from recycled material (where feasible and safe), and it’s also designed for recycling after use. In fact the plastic we use for our bottled products comes from waste beverage bottles like milk or juice .
We’ve also partnered with the Plastic Bank, an organisation fighting ocean plastic whilst empowering disenfranchised communities to turn pollution into wealth. So, for every weDo product sold, 8 plastic bottles will be collected from the environment by local residents and turned into rewards such as healthcare, insurance, school tuition or cash.
While there still are issues that need to be addressed, bioplastics, together with recycling, are a step in the right, greener direction. Technological innovation to tackle plastic pollution is on the rise, including a growing roster of research and design companies looking into alternative materials that we can use to replace plastic. We all play a part in ending plastic waste so reduce, reuse, recycle.