Plastics. They seem like they're part of nearly everything we use or consume. And the problem is they don't ever go away. There has to be a greener option, which is where bioplastics come in. But are they really a solution?
Here are five things to know:
- The problem is regular plastic works really well. PET or polyethylene terephthalate keeps our food fresh and our liquids pressurized and bubbly precisely because it doesn't break down immediately when you use it, which would be messy.
- Bioplastics then behave like these regular plastics, but instead of being oil-based and made from petro-chemicals, they're made of polymers from plants and sugars or even seashells. This can help with reduced emissions basically because they're not made of fossil fuels.
- The two most common bioplastics are PHA and PLA. However, neither is widely used for a few reasons. They aren't as durable, and they cost much more to make, being two of the main ones.
- The other problem is that even though they're bioplastic and can be broken down by micro-organisms quickly, you can't just throw them away or bury them. They need to be specially composted at high-temperature industrial facilities. There aren't many of those facilities right now, especially in developing countries where more intense plastic pollution occurs.
- Experts say that until a way to make the ultimate bioplastic is found, it's actually more sensible to focus on ensuring that manufacturers are responsible. This means designing their products to be recycled, helping to pay for the process and even recycling it themselves. The way the world recycles plastic is also in need of recycling. A recent report suggests making the process a "circular economy," that means recycling and reusing the plastic we already have. That way waste could be reduced by as much as 80% over the next 20 years.
So, until they mass produce bottles and packaging that can truly melt into the ground and nourish our soil the moment we're done with it, the future may be with conventional plastics, at least for the time being.