BIOPLASTICS : SOLUTION OR PROBLEM?
This week, Greta Thunberg gave an exceptional speech that left us in tears. She urged the leaders to act on climate change as they did on the Notre Dame. Climate change is just like the fire, but in slow motion, but more devastating as it cannot be rebuilt like how the Notre Dame can be rebuilt. Some of the effects will be devastatingly irreversible. Watch the entire video here.
And it is this week, that we have decided to shed some light on bioplastics, as we believe that while on theory it is good, in reality, it isn't helping; but just diverting one plastic problem to a seemingly non-plastic problem.
BIOPLASTICS ≠ BIODEGRADABLE
To fully understand the issue, we must first understand what is bioplastics, how it's produced, and how does it get broken down.
WHAT IS BIOPLASTIC?
According to NatGeo, simply put, bioplastic is plastic that is made from plants or biological materials instead of the tradition petroleum. Bioplastic is further broken down into two spectrums, polylactic acids (PLA) and polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA). For simplicity, we will only be focusing on PLA today, which is the common bioplastic used for food packaging and plastic bags.
HOW IS BIOPLASTIC PRODUCED?
In an article by Renee Cho in conjunction with Columbia University, PLA is generally made by extracting the sugars in plants (typically from sugarcane, corn and cassava). The extracted sugar molecules are then combined and bound with other compounds to form what we know as bioplastic. PLA often comes from the large scale industrial facilities, and it is the cheapest source of bioplastic. PLA is the most common type of bioplastic, and can be found in plastic bottles, utensils and textiles, to name a few.
There's a catch though : to produce the material for bioplastics (corn, sugarcane, etc), extensive land use and water is needed, much like growing your own crops for food consumption. In a 2010 study, it was found that bioplastics production required more fertilizers and pesticides, which resulted in a higher amount of pollutants. Thus, there is the debate and issue now on whether producing bioplastic crops is doing more harm than good to the environment (but we'll leave that for another day).
HOW IS BIOPLASTIC BROKEN DOWN?
Bioplastic MUST BE sent to a landfill to be recycled just like plastic, or to a specific industrial compost site. Contrary to the common belief that bioplastic can be broken down anywhere since it's made from plants, bioplastic actually needs to be broken down and composted at a specific temperature and humidity. Without those specific conditions, they act in the same manner as petroleum based plastic, lasting for decades.
“If PLA [bioplastic] does leak out, it also will not biodegrade in the ocean,” according to Jambeck on NatGeo. “It's really not any different from those industrial polymers. It can be composted in an industrial facility, but if the town doesn't have one, then it's not any different.”
So while bioplastic IS recyclable, there are actually NO PROPER plastic recycling facilities within Australia.
In a nutshell, we still believe that the best alternative is still NO PLASTIC. If you have to use a single use item for hygienic reasons, we strongly recommend to use non-plastic alternatives, such as wheat straws, palm plates, and bamboo cutleries. Even though the cost might be higher, it will inevitably save our future.