Thanks to their lightweight, strong and moldable properties, plastics are one of the most versatile materials on the planet. Their applications include packaging, vehicle safety, medical equipment, electronics and many more. To keep up with global demand, over 18 trillion pounds of plastic have been produced – making it one of the most abundant man-made materials in existence.
With only 9% of plastic being recycled, the rest is burnt or accumulating in landfills. As plastic can take more than a thousand years to decompose, plastic pollution is causing detrimental damage to delicate ecosystems all over the world. This has raised serious environmental concerns and there is a growing public outcry for suitable alternatives.
Scientists have developed bioplastics to reduce some of the negative environmental impacts of regular plastics while maintaining their fantastic properties as a material. Let’s take a closer look at the differences between regular plastic and bioplastic, along with their distinct advantages.
What is regular plastic?
Plastic comes from the non-renewable source, petroleum. It’s commonly made from fossil hydrocarbons, such as ethylene and propylene. Bacteria prefer organic material which is why plastics accumulate rather than decompose when they are thrown in landfills or the natural environment. Due to extensive demand for this material, around eight percent of the world’s oil is used to make plastic.
What are bioplastics?
Instead of being produced from petroleum, bioplastics are made with plant or other biological materials. Most commonly, this process is done by extracting sugar from plants like corn and sugarcane to convert into polylactic acids (PLAs). This produces PLA plastic and is commonly used in food packaging as it is cheap to produce. Bioplastics can also be produced from polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs) that have been engineered from micro-organisms. PHA plastic has many medical applications and uses.
Are bioplastics competing with regular plastics?
To explore the usage of each material, we have to dive into the numbers. Globally, bioplastics make up nearly 300,000 metric tons of the plastics market. This may seem a lot but it’s barely a fraction of regular plastic production, which stands at 181 million metric tons every year. However, this snapshot ratio fails to take into account the growing bioplastics market, which has been increasing between 20-30% every year.
Do they have advantages over regular plastics?
Bioplastics help to reduce a number of the environmental issues associated with regular plastics. By using renewable materials, such as corn, they are reducing the carbon footprint during their lifetime. In some cases, their production has the potential to be carbon neutral. These materials clearly mark a shift in our efforts to reduce global dependency on the limited fossil resources we have.
As they are biodegradable, producing bioplastic reduces non-biodegradable waste and their associated environmental problems. Once these bioplastics have been used, they can be organically recycled and create valuable biomass used to grow new plants. The cycle comes full circle much faster than regular plastics.
For all their environmental advantages, bioplastics still fall behind many commonly used petroleum-based plastics when it comes to physical properties. ABS, for instance, is one of the most commonly used traditional plastics for a wide range of consumer products from electronic housings, to Car body parts. Very high strength, durability and flexibility make this material the go-to material for many different applications, and current biomaterials simply cannot compete with its physical performance. This clearly places some major limitations on the current suitable applications for bioplastics. At the moment bioplastics are used mainly for single use or low impact products such as packaging. Rapid developments in bioplastic performance and cost, however, promise to make bioplastics ever more useful and able to take over from traditional materials at an increasing rate.
Are there any problems with bioplastic production?
Compared to regular plastic, bioplastic appears to be stepping in the right direction in reducing environmental impacts. However, there are still problems that scientists and industry leaders are trying to overcome.
To grow the biological materials for bioplastic, fertilizers are used. These can run off the land into surrounding water supplies and pollute nearby wildlife. Their production also raises ethical concerns. In parts of the world struggling to feed itself, using corn to produce bioplastic instead of food raises difficult questions on the distribution of resources.
Many bioplastics also require industrial composting to degrade. Microbes can’t break these materials down without intense heat applied. If they aren’t processed in this way, they either end up in a landfill or natural environment and cause similar problems to petroleum-based plastic.
Plastic and bioplastic require separate facilities to be processed after use. If displaced into regular plastic recycling facilities, small amounts of bioplastic can contaminate the recycling process and render the materials useless.
Clearly, there are challenges that bioplastics still have to overcome to be the environmentally material the world demands. However, bioplastics have done a great deal already to reduce negative impacts from regular plastic. With consumer interest in sustainable alternatives to plastics still climbing, research is being fueled to constantly improve bioplastic as a suitable and environmentally friendly material.
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