What’s the deal with Bioplastics?

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It can feel daunting – and at times almost impossible – navigating our ways towards a sustainable future, no more so than getting our heads around the jargon of conscious consumerism.

Thanks to the en vogue marketing surrounding sustainability, it’s easier than ever to convince ourselves that we’re saving Mother Earth, when in fact we could be doing more harm than good. Such is the case of bioplastics; insert some kind of eco-lingo and it appears we’re weak at the knees. But whilst their name sounds promising, just how ‘guilt-free’ are they?

 

This is where it gets complicated.

 

Bioplastics are made from renewable plant or biological materials (instead of the usual petroleum), which typically makes them biodegradable or compostable. Even though they are made of molecules that can break down naturally, we still have no idea exactly how long this process of degradation takes – and we’re not talking weeks or months, but rather years. In the case of compostable plastics, they have to be industrially heated to high enough temperatures allowing microbes to break them down. Without this heat, they will not decompose, not in your compost heap at home or in landfill. So despite their biodegradable and compostable label, they still require industrial processing.

 

The problem is that our quick ditch of single-use plastic and adoption of plant-based alternatives has not been matched by the UK’s waste and recycling industry. The reality is, there is a lack of industrial composting facilities, restricting the opportunity to dispose of bioplastics in their so-called eco-friendly way. So, if they are not being disposed of correctly, they simply end up with all the other plastic that pollutes our planet, or contaminating our regular recycling system. Yep you heard that correctly, bioplastics can’t be recycled either. Due to the plant-based materials they are composed of, they require different melting temperatures and threaten the quality of other recycled plastics.

 

Let’s go back a couple of months, when the severity of our recycling problem was uncovered. We all know that it’s more remunerative to export our plastics for recycling, than it is to domestically process them. Yet once it leaves our shores, who knows what really happens – is it actually recycled? After China’s ban on plastic waste imports last year, the effects were felt in nearby countries, particularly Malaysia. Now Malaysia have clamped down on their laws too, sending back 3,000 metric tonnes of non-recyclable plastic waste to countries including the UK. So, whilst it’s great to have developed these supposedly ‘cleaner’ plastics, surely we must develop our own plastic waste facilities to be able to deal with what we are producing. 

 

It’s all a bit confusing, isn’t it?

 

Whilst it’s all well and good buying biodegradable and compostable alternatives, they require us to become even more knowledgeable and responsible. Although bioplastics are made from kinder chemicals - and are a step in the right direction - they are not necessarily a more sustainable variety of plastic, neither are they a solution to our plastic pollution crisis – despite what we are led to believe.

 

There is no black and white answer, it’s not a simple solution. It’s just another reason to demand more transparency when it comes to sustainability, another cry to reduce our waste, plant-based or not.

 

This post was contributed by Stay Wild family member Faye Hardy

Grace Bayley