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Bioplastics As An Alternative to Petroleum-Based Plastics

The development of bioplastics – plastics that are biodegradable and made of natural materials – provides businesses with eco-friendly alternatives for packaging and products, especially single-use items that contribute a lot of waste. The bioplastic industry is still in its early stages but steadily growing and will begin replacing many disposable items made from petroleum-based plastic, such as cups, cutlery, packaging, containers and straws. This article introduces the reader to the 5 basic types of bioplastics and how businesses can benefit from them in practical ways.

The Tricky Thing About Plastic

We’ve heard it all before: Plastic waste is unquestionably a huge threat against the planet. The world has produced over nine billion tons of plastic since the 1950s and only about 9 percent of it gets recycled. Every piece of plastic made in the last century is still present somewhere on earth, meaning we have a HUGE amount of plastic waste and it’s not going away anytime soon.

Petroleum-based plastics can take up to 500 years to decompose, slowly releasing toxic chemical additives into the surrounding environment and breaking down into harmful microplastics. When improperly recycled, they can contaminate whole batches of recyclable plastics and damage recycling infrastructure. Not to mention petroleum-based plastics are only draining our finite supply of fossil fuels.

While conventional plastics are useful – and often necessary – for many business and industrial uses, there must be a shift towards a more sustainable alternative for single-use items like packaging.

What are bioplastics and are they truly biodegradable?

Unlike conventional plastics made from petroleum, bioplastics are derived from renewable biomass sources such as vegetable fats and oils, corn starch, straw, woodchips, sawdust, recycled food waste, etc. Many types of bioplastics offer the same qualities as conventional plastics like durability, flexibility, etc. while also being a more sustainable product.

However, just because these plastics are made from biodegradable substances does not necessarily mean they are good for the environment. In the end, they are still plastics and need to be disposed of properly. They have the potential to biodegrade but only under special conditions, meaning they’re often not safe to toss into your backyard. That’s where purchasing from a verified sustainable company and reading the fine print is crucial.

Types of Bioplastic Degradability

The term biodegrade refers to the process by which microbes break down a material under suitable conditions. Under the right conditions and over a certain amount of time, technically speaking, all materials are degradable.

We typically consider a material “biodegradable” if it degrades within a relatively short period of time (less than a year). Due to this, not all types of bioplastics are considered biodegradable and they can fall into a few different categories based on their end-of-life plan.

  • Degradable – All plastics, even conventional petroleum-based plastics, are technically degradable. Given the right amount of time and environmental conditions, they will break into tiny fragments. However, such plastics will never fully return to their “natural” organic state, thus they remain a source of pollution, leaking chemicals and micro fragments into the environment.
  • Biodegradable – Bioplastics that are considered “biodegradable” can be broken down by microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi and algae into water, carbon dioxide, methane, biomass and inorganic compounds. As stated above, types of bioplastics that can completely be broken down within a few months are considered biodegradable.
  • Compostable – Compostable bioplastics can be broken down by microorganisms just like biodegradable bioplastics, but they will decompose into nutrient-rich biomass often in as little as three months, leaving behind no toxins or residue. Some compostable bioplastics can be composed naturally in home gardens while others may require the high temperatures of a specialized composting facility.

The 5 Most Common Types of BioPlastics

Bioplastics cover a wide range of bio-based polymers that have a variety of unique attributes and applications. New materials continue to be discovered and experimented with. The 5 most common types of bioplastics include:

  1. Starch-Based
    • Simple bioplastic derived from corn starch
    • Often mixed with biodegradable polyesters
    • Example: Green Dot Bioplastics has successfully developed cell phone cases from compostable, starch-based plastics. Additional opportunities are expected in compostable yard and kitchen bags, food service disposables and various types of packaging.
  2. Cellulose-Based
    • Produced using cellulose esters and cellulose derivatives
    • Example: Major applications for cellulose plastics include thermoplastics, extruded films, eyeglass frames, electronics, sheets, rods, etc.
      Molding materials is the most dominant application segment for cellulose plastics and the trend is expected to continue. Plastic is produced mainly using nonrenewable resources such as crude oil and its several derivatives owing to which, the carbon footprint is high in the production of cellulose plastics.
  3. Protein-Based
    • Produced using protein sources such as wheat gluten, casein and milk
    • Example:  Biopolymers that are protein-based have become a leading alternative for food packaging. There have been major advances in protein-based films and coatings for food packaging made from plant and animal proteins.
  4. Bio-derived Polyethylene
    • Polyethylene that has been produced from the fermentation of raw agricultural materials like sugarcane and corn rather than fossil fuels
    • Example: High Density Polyethylene is used in several packaging applications including crates, trays, bottles for milk and fruit juices, caps for food packaging, jerry cans, drums, industrial bulk containers etc.
  5. Aliphatic Polyesters
    • A collection of bio-based polyesters including PLA, PHB, PGA, among others.
    • They are all more or less sensitive to hydrolytic degradation, aka they are sensitive to water, and can be mixed with other compounds.
    • Example: Some bio-based polyesters that have gained commercial use or that are currently being investigated are polylactic acid (PLA), polyglycolic acid (PGA), poly-ε-caprolactone (PCL), polyhydroxybutyrate (PHB), and poly(3-hydroxy valerate). However, only a small number of them are commercially available.

Aliphatic polyesters and other biopolymers have many applications in medicine and pharmaceutical technology such as in drug delivery systems, wound closure, surgical sutures, implants and tissue engineering.
Major manufacturers of aliphatic polyester bioplastics include NatureWorks, BioMatera, Perstop, Solvay, Novamont, Mitsui, Corbion and Dow.

How to Replace Plastic in the Workplace and Business Operations

When considering which types of bioplastics to use to replace common workplace items, it should be standard practice to look for products that are verified and from a reputable company, naturally biodegradable or compostable, made from recycled content and able to decompose in a short period of time. Thorough research into each product and access to specialized facilities for handling such materials should be conducted before making purchase decisions.

Packaging for Shipping

Packaging for shipping can be both paper, cardboard or plastic. Paper and cardboard are more easily recycled and often cheaper but sometimes the durability of plastic is needed to protect fragile items. Here are a few suggestions for bioplastic packaging:

  • Storopack is a manufacturer of biodegradable bioplastic packaging including loose fills and ESD films for protecting and bracing fragile items in transit.
  • EcoEnclose offers sustainable and eco-friendly shipping packaging including many recyclable, compostable, and biodegradable options.
  • The Better Packaging Co. provides cutting edge, sustainable packaging options including garment bags, poly bags, mailers, envelopes and satchels in addition to other packaging accessories.

For additional tips and suggestions read Green Business Bureau’s article “Sustainable Packaging: Biodegradable and Eco-Friendly Options For Your Business”.

Containers

Containers can be made from biodegradable or compostable bioplastics. Of course, the material that is best for your business depends on your specific needs. Below are a few suggestions for sustainable container options:

  • Green Paper Products provides a wide range of hot containers, cold containers, clamshells and other products to hold your product, all biodegradable and/or compostable.
  • Good Natured provides options for bioplastic food packaging and compostable take out containers that are plant-based.

Cafeteria Silverware

There are a couple main materials for sustainable silverware. There is certified commercially compostable cutlery that is tested to pass standards for commercial compost, and then there is recycled-content cutlery made from recycled-polypropylene.

  • Options for both of the above suggestions can be found at Urth Pact.
  • Green Paper Products also provide petroleum-free cutlery that is biodegradable and compostable.

When to Choose Paper VS BioPlastic

Paper and cardboard are fairly easy to recycle back into their fibrous pulp origin and then made into a new product. In contrast to plastics, green paper products are non-synthetic whose manufacturing process does not rely on chemical reactions, or at least very minimal. It is much easier to make 90% and even 100% post consumer recycled paper than it is to make 100% post consumer recycled plastic. Therefore, it’s better to choose paper, even over bioplastics.

Even in the case of using conventional plastics, you should always look for products made from recycled content to help preserve resources. Unfortunately right now, there are no recycled-content bioplastics commercially available.

Choosing the best option for your business

Even though they are a more eco-friendly alternative, in order for bioplastics to be successfully sustainable they must be disposed of properly. If not, they end up in landfills like the rest of our trash or they can disrupt the recycling process of conventional plastics.

When considering the materials you are going to use to reduce your plastic footprint, it is critical that you are picking a product that is verifiably biodegradable or compostable and can be broken down in a short amount of time. Recycled-content is also an important criteria as well as the product’s end-of-life plan.

Whether paper, plastic or bioplastic, business owners should be taking into consideration what materials they are using in their operations and how they are disposing of them. Further, thorough research should be put into all purchasing decisions. Bioplastic can be a great alternative to standard plastic, but in the end must be treated carefully like with all waste types. Bioplastics might not be the answer to saving our planet, but they are providing a more sustainable alternative to standard plastics.

About the Author

Monika Metro

GBB Green Ambassador

Monika Metro is a content writer for Green Business Bureau with a passion for conservation, ecology, climate change, and giving back to her community. She has recently graduated from Virginia Wesleyan University with a BS in Biology and Environmental Studies. She will soon continue her studies in the Climate Change Science and Policy Graduate Program at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. Outside of academics, Monika loves to travel, play soccer, hike, and is an avid yogi.

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