EXPLORING SUSTAINABLE ALTERNATIVES: A LOOK AT BIOPLASTICS (Pt. 1)

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We talk a lot about sustainable alternatives to commonly used products here at Fairware—from re-purposed and recycled items to organic textiles. It’s actually quite amazing how many options there are when making a conscious choice to buy better products.

Take plastic for instance. From plastic containers and packaging to utensils and bottles—so much of what we come across in everyday life  is made from plastics and they can have a devastating impact on the environment, human health, species maintenance, and the ocean.

First, let’s talk about what makes common plastics so damaging. Common plastics are obtained from petroleum, which significantly increases the production of greenhouse gases and makes the plastics reliant on fossil fuels. Aside from what these plastics take from the environment during manufacturing, there is the major issue of what they leave behind. Some common plastics such as Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) and Polystyrene are notable for the hazards throughout their life-cyle.  The production and disposal of some plastics can threaten the life of ocean species and animals, but also humans.

So, in short: the production common plastics is threatening our environment and health. Yet, their uses are vast and the need for plastic is unavoidable.

Enter bioplastics or biopolymers, promising to be a safer, environmentally responsible alternative. While there are other types of “biodegradable plastics” on the market, for the purpose of this post, we’re looking at bioplastics such as PLA are plastics that are derived from renewable living sources, such as vegetable fats and oils, corn starch, potatoes, and rice. And as with most innovations, they’re bring opportunity and have risks. We explore both below:

But the biggest draw towards bioplastics is in its lifecycle. Most—though not all—bio-materials disintegrate rapidly in commercially managed composting processed. In theory, this means there are less harmful waste left in our ecosystems. Bioplastics that are not biodegradable are used to make non-disposable items such as cell phone casings or car interiors. The objective of these bioplastic applications is the use of sustainable, renewable resources in production rather than the end of life biodegradability.

According to some studies, bioplastics account for a whopping 42% reduction in carbon footprint. However, that’s not say these studies haven’t had their fair share of disputes. For example, Environmental data from NatureWorks, the only commercial manufacturer of PLA (polylactic acid) bioplastic, says that making its plastic material delivers a fossil fuel saving of between 25 and 68 per cent compared with polyethylene, in part due to its purchasing of renewable energy certificates for its manufacturing plant.

There remain critical changes that need to be made in the bio-plastics game. Powering farming machinery and irrigating crops rely heavily on petroleum as an energy source. There are also concerns around the use of genetically modified organisms in agricultural feedstock production and using a food based crop for fuel.  Finally, there is a major lack in composting and recycling infrastructure. Cities like Seattle and San Francisco have successfully implemented proper composting and recycling infrastructures. Without this infrastructure, most bioproducts end up as trash in a landfill. The emergence of a third party certification agency (BPI in the US) tasked with certifying a manufacturers claims regarding compostability to international standards will help to standardize what is and isn’t suitable for municipal composting.

Getting consumers on board is the first step towards implementing the proper production and composting infrastructure needed to make the best of bioplastic technologies. The first step comes in helping consumers understand the environmental, human and economic impacts made by their purchases (no small task, we know). But confusing labels often mislead consumers. Take “bio-based,” for example, sounds like a product branded like this would be biodegradable, right? Actually, this is not necessarily the case.

“Biodegradable,” meanwhile, does not always mean compostable, but rather that the product will eventually disintegrate. Bewildering labeling is actually a major factor of improper recycling and composting – it’s confusing to say the least. We are going to further into the FTC Guidelines on compostable vs. biodegradable vs. degradable in our post next week, so stay tuned for that!

Like all new, sustainable technologies and initiatives, there is good and bad. The development of bioplastics shows a promising push towards renewability and compostability. But there needs to be continued consumer education of how these products are properly used as well as adequate means to compost and recycle these bioplastics before this technology reaches its full potential.

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