What You Need to Know about Bioplastics

By Bridget M Burns in Natural Products

The negative environmental impacts of plastic are widely known and well documented. Since its rise during the 1950s, awareness of the prevalence of plastic in landfills has continued to grow. Recently, messaging around recycling plastic has shifted to promote complete avoidance of plastic products.

Now, many grocery stores are charging for plastic bags, reusable water bottles are taking the place of single-use bottles, natural materials such as metal and wood are coming back into vogue, and there's even a movement encouraging people to stop using plastic straws.

Yet, while everyone tries to turn away from plastic use, new bioplastics are being developed to make plastic products and product packaging far more environmentally friendly.

What Is Bioplastic?

A bioplastic is a biodegradable plastic made from renewable materials. The American Chemical Society states that this kind of plastic is created by converting the sugar present in plants into plastic. In the United States, the primary source of plant sugar is corn. In other parts of the world, sources include sugar beets and potatoes. Castor oil plants can also be used to create bioplastics when they're converted into a polymer, according to a study in Advances in Biotechnology & Microbiology.

The American Chemical Society notes that there are two types of bioplastic: PLA and PHA. PLA, or polylactide, is typically made from plants and can be used to make bottles, cutlery, packaging, and textiles. PHA, or polyhydroxyalkanoate, is made from microorganisms and is most commonly used in medical applications.

Plastics have many unique properties that make them hard to replace with natural materials, such as metal or wood. Encyclopedia Britannica explains that these include low electrical conductivity, transparency, and the ability to be molded. As more time is dedicated to finding sustainable plastic alternatives, bio versions are becoming more sophisticated and emulating more of these desirable properties.

Another reason plastics became so rampant is that they are relatively cheap to produce—but this isn't the case with bioplastic alternatives. According to Columbia University's Earth Institute, bioplastic production can be 20 to 50 percent more expensive than traditional plastic production. Scientists are currently exploring potential solutions to reduce these costs, such as creating bioplastic from wastewater and organic waste. With the price of oil on the rise, there's a vested interest in improving the efficiency of bioplastic production.

corn plant in a field

Is Bioplastic Better for the Environment?

Most plastics are made from petroleum-derived materials. According to the United States Energy Information Administration, traditional plastics are made from natural gas or feedstocks derived from natural gas processing or crude oil refining—which are non-renewable resources. Because bioplastic sources are renewable and sustainable, they are generally assumed to be better for the environment.

According to a study in Environmental Research Letters, corn-based plastic alternatives could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 25 percent. That said, switching to renewable energy sources for production would have an even larger impact. Currently, not all production plants that create bioplastic have eliminated the use of fossil fuels to power processing operations, as the American Chemical Society explains, which leaves room for improvement.

As with any new technology, there are still a lot of questions and potential issues to resolve. While bioplastics may not yet be a perfected solution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, they serve as an important first step toward producing more sustainable plastic products and could eventually prove to be far more viable as the technology advances.

young boy drinking from disposable plastic water bottle

Bioplastic Products

According to the American Chemical Society, disposable water bottles are one of the most common consumer products that can be made with bioplastic. Other products include food packaging, kitchen utensils, tea bags, toys, and even personal care products you use every day.

For example, the Tom's of Maine Naturally Clean Toothbrush is made from renewable castor oil plants and is recyclable through the TerraCycle collection program. Plus, it's BPA-free and free of artificial colors.

Where can you find bioplastic products? In the United States, we do not have a one-stop shop for goods made from renewable materials. If you're interested in buying more products made with sustainably produced plastic, seek out companies that are vocal about their environmental efforts and explore their offerings.

You can also contact the manufacturers of the plastic products you use most frequently and tell them you're exploring more sustainable options. It can take a long time for consumer feedback to be implemented—especially when it's a change as big as material sourcing—but saying something can be a helpful start to making a difference.

baby in bathtub using toothbrush made from bioplastics

Bioplastic Recycling

According to National Geographic, 91 percent of plastic isn't recycled. Even more troubling is the fact that plastic, thanks in part to the durability that manufacturers and consumers find attractive, takes more than 400 years to degrade. These two statistics have led to the prediction that by the year 2050, the ocean will contain more plastic, by weight, than fish.

But what about bioplastics? While they are considered compostable, they often still end up in landfills where conditions do not allow them to breakdown as they are designed to, notes the American Chemical Society.

Luckily, there's a way to ensure your plastic products end up in the right place. Tom's of Maine's partnership with TerraCycle gives consumers an easy way to recycle hard-to-recycle waste, including their bioplastic toothbrushes. The hope is that as more companies turn to bioplastic materials, more composting and recycling solutions will become available.

Discontinuing your use of disposable goods will likely have the biggest impact on your plastic consumption. For areas where items must eventually be replaced—such as toothbrushes—bioplastics could be a good solution. By looking for bioplastic-based alternatives to products you already use, you can signal to manufacturers that you're interested in new, sustainable materials. Your dollars are your voice, and the decisions you make have the power to impact the future of manufacturing!

Image Sources: Pixabay | Pixabay | Pixabay | Bridget M Burns

The views and opinions expressed in any guest post featured on our site are those of the guest author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of Tom's of Maine.

Why It's Good

The use of plastics has been on the rise since the 1950s, with the majority of plastic products eventually ending up in landfills. By switching from petroleum-based plastics to plastics made from renewable feedsources, you can reduce your carbon footprint.