Are Bioplastics a Viable Solution?

Plastic pollution is a gigantic global problem. The equivalent of 2,000 garbage trucks of plastic are dumped every day into the world’s waterways. Around 19 to 23 million tons of plastic waste leak into aquatic ecosystems yearly. There is a garbage the size of Texas floating in the Pacific Ocean called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

A two-year Pew Charitable Trusts and SYSTEMIQ study found that the problem is getting worse with each passing year.

The Pew study concluded that the plastic system needs a $600 billion overhaul that incorporates reusing and recycling. The study also included bioplastics, plastics made from a plant source, as part of the solution. Big brands like Coca-Cola and Pepsi tout their use of bioplastics. The bioplastics market was $12 billion in 2022 and is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 18.8 percent from 2023 to 2030. The global traditional plastic industry’s value in 2022 was $712 billion.

The High Cost of Bioplastics

Are bioplastics really a good solution for plastic pollution? A study on bioplastics found that they could be compatible with current recycling programs. However, the study concluded that there are negative impacts on agriculture, higher costs, and unclean end-of-life management.

A company called PlasticSwitch aims to replace traditional plastic with bioplastic. PlanetSwitch makes bioplastic out of agricultural residues. It calls the process a “low-cost, zero-waste, drop-in replacement to plastic.” One of the criteria for a PlanetSwitch product is that it is “designed to degrade in the environments where it will ultimately end up.” The company admits its current products are designed for “landfill degradation.”

Products designed for landfill degradation are problematic. They can last centuries and give off methane as they degrade. Methane is a greenhouse gas with a warming potential of 80 times that of carbon dioxide, contributing approximately 25 percent of global warming from climate change. However, methane persists in the atmosphere for less time than carbon does. Focusing on reducing methane emissions could potentially lead to slowing climate change.

There is another problem with bioplastics. They come with a high price tag. Producing bioplastics that are as cheap as traditional plastics is a challenge. They can cost 20 to 50 percent more because converting a plant-based substance into plastic is complex. The high price tag of bioplastics means that companies should first consider eliminating plastic packaging when possible and using recycled plastic.

A Circular Economy for Plastic

One solution to the plastic pollution problem is creating a circular economy that accounts for every stage of a product’s life cycle. The Ellen Macarthur Foundation lists three actions to create a circular economy for plastics:

  • Eliminate all unnecessary plastic items.
  • Innovate to ensure that the plastics we need are reusable, recyclable, and compostable.
  • Circulate all the plastic items we use to keep them in the economy and out of the environment.

Creating a circular economy for plastics means boosting the demand for recycled plastics. The raw feedstocks for traditional plastics are fossil fuels, which are cheaper to use than recycled plastic. Many companies are committing to recycling plastic, but not enough think about stimulating the markets for recycled material, according to the ERM Sustainability Institute. Companies need to commit to using post-consumer resin to boost the market for these materials.

Bioplastics is an example of relying too heavily on a silver-bullet technological solution mentality to a complex global challenge. There are no silver bullets.

Gina-Marie Cheeseman
Gina-Marie Cheeseman
Gina-Marie Cheeseman, freelance writer/journalist/copyeditor Twitter: @gmcheeseman

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