Bioplastics, part two


This post is part of our definitions series on “eco-lingo” and technical terms.

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Part 1 of this post provides a definition for the term “bioplastic” and clarifies the distinctions between “degradable”, “biodegradable” and “compostable” plastics.

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a compostable plastic cup from NatureWorks

While the idea of plant-based, biodegradable and compostable plastic made from renewable resources sounds like a potential panacea to the problem of plastic trash, the reality is -at this point- it is still too good to be true.

For starters, as I outlined in the first part of this post, not all bioplastics are created equal. To quickly re-cap, many are hybrids of conventional plastic polymers with added biomass; some are able to biodegrade and some are not; and the “compostable” type usually requires the high temperatures of a commercial composting facility in order to break down. What this means is that many new classes of plastics have been unleashed into the waste stream (with the catch-all rating of #7, or “other”) without the infrastructure in place to process them.  In large quantity, there is the real likelihood that they will complicate the recycling of traditional PET plastics.

Compostable plastics and serviceware such as coffee cups, to-go containers, etc., may be placed in municipal compost bins, but at this time no ‘bioplastics’ should  be placed in a regular mixed recycling bin (large scale efforts to recycle bioplastics in their own right could be termed “fledgling”, at best).

For example, the City of Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability authored a fact-sheet for area businesses considering using bioplastics that not only warns that the local recycling facility is not equipped to process many of the new plastics, but also calls into question the long-term wisdom of replacing one set of disposable products with another. In short, even if all things were equal with the logistical aspects of recycling bioplastics vs. conventional plastics, there is still the reality that bioplastics use fossil fuels in their creation, create greenhouse gases in their decomposition, cannot be processed by consumers at home, and can continue to perpetrate the problem of plastic trash in the ocean.

With all of that said, there may still be a place and a potential for bioplastics. The technology is rapidly evolving, and if the industries can coordinate with infrastructure, then proper use of the materials will be the result.

For more information visit:

The Sustainable Biomaterials Collaborative;

Bioplastics Magazine (a trade publication);

and Sustainable Plastics? a website and project of the Institute for Local Self Reliance.

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What exactly does “sustainability” mean? How about “green”, “eco” or “environmentally friendly”? The truth is that these terms are just vague enough to mean many different things to many different people. With the staggering array of “green” products, ‘lifestyles’ and concepts being promoted by marketers and environmentalists alike (as well as the necessary coining of new terms to match new ideas) our definition series aims to make sense of the rising tide of “eco-lingo” and technical terms.

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