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The myth of bioplastics


Many companies have discovered that making their products sustainable is a unique selling point and good for PR. Some are eager to promote bioplastics as being more sustainable. Often this is not the case.

Global recognition of plastic pollution as a severe environmental issue. Consequently, a number of programmes have been started to reduce plastic pollution, most notably the recent EU Directive on reducing the environmental impact of specific plastic products, or the Single-Use Plastic Directive. Even the commercial sector strives to lessen its environmental impact by utilising "cleaner" varieties of plastic, such as bio-based and biodegradable plastics, or by eliminating plastic from their products altogether. These polymers can, however, deceive customers because they frequently produce just as much pollution as traditional plastics. How eco-friendly are biodegradable plastics then?


Green plastics?

The bio-based and biodegradable plastics subcategories of bioplastics can be distinguished. Given that they are made of biomass rather than fossil fuels, bio-based polymers are frequently marketed as environmentally benign materials. They are plastics even if they are not petroleum-based and come from renewable resources. They can be just as harmful and have a similar environmental degradation period as plastics made from petroleum.


Due to their capacity to completely break down over time, biodegradable polymers are also advertised as an environmentally friendly alternative. Consumers are kept in the dark regarding the fact that almost all materials will deteriorate over time. Typically, it is not stated how quickly or in what types of environments bioplastic can degrade. The environment is not conducive to biodegradation in locations where plastic litter is frequently seen on the ground and in water.


The majority of biodegradable polymers can only break down in a specialised industrial setting with regulated temperature, humidity, and light. Even biodegradable plastic items that are labelled as compostable may only be composted at commercial composting facilities; they cannot be composted at home. The Netherlands now treats biodegradable garbage (including "compostable" plastics) alongside residual rubbish rather than composting or recycling it. Oxo-degradable plastics are another illustration.


Manufacturers used to tout the fact that oxy-degradable plastics break down more quickly than conventional plastics. These polymers, however, merely break down into tiny pieces that remain in the environment and do not actually biodegrade. The once-lauded oxo-degradable plastics have been completely banned in the EU due to their detrimental effects on the environment. Some plastic cups marked as biodegradable have the emblem of Leiden University printed on them.


In actuality, the material used to make these cups is polylactic acid (PLA), a bio-based material generated from renewable biomass like corn or sugarcane starch. PLA must be collected separately and treated in a specialised industrial composting facility for three weeks in order to break down.


The cups will end up with residual waste, which is most likely being burned in an incineration facility because they are not collected separately. Most communities lack specialised composting facilities, therefore materials cannot degrade in typical conditions. The proper method of disposal in that situation is incineration. Furthermore, PLA may even interfere with the recycling process if it enters the stream of plastic being recycled. The quality of the material produced is drastically lowered as a result of the PLA. This considerably reduces its commercial price and renders it unfit for a variety of uses. Because PLA appears precisely like ordinary plastic, it can accidentally end up in the wrong trash can. The majority of consumers are unaware of which trash can it belongs in, and this can vary depending on the municipality. Currently, waste management providers advise placing biodegradable plastic in the container for residual waste.


Imposing regulations against greenwashing

Some manufacturers have taken advantage of the ambiguity surrounding all these categories to "greenwash" their products by designating them as environmentally friendly. Consumers may be duped into purchasing products by these labelling, even if the materials are just as environmentally damaging as their conventional polymer equivalents. Numerous professionals and organisations are pushing for policies that will result in more precise definitions. First, biodegradability needs to be assessed using international scientific criteria and tailored for various environmental conditions. Second, certification programmes must to be established to produce labels for biodegradability that are more precise, like "marine degradable" and "home compostable." Internationally standardised criteria for various types of plastic could encourage separate collection in this way, resulting in greater recycling alternatives.


This desire to provide customers with transparency is shared by the European Union. By May 2017, the requirements for labels or marks indicating the biodegradability and compostability of plastic bags were supposed to have been created in accordance with Article 8a of the waste and waste packaging directive. The objective was to accurately inform consumers about the biodegradation and composting capabilities of such bags. However, it appears that no standards have been put into practise yet, and there are no immediate intentions to do so.


Scientific standards key to improving recycling

The desire for less polluting substitutes is growing due to the popular assumption that plastic pollution could cause an avoidable environmental calamity. Sadly, the majority of bioplastics do not reduce pollution as much as claimed, and regretfully this also applies to the plastic cup used by Leiden University. Although they hardly help to avoid plastic pollution, the cups are used as an eco-friendly alternative to plastic. Therefore, it is vitally necessary to develop biodegradation and composting standards based on scientific research in order to phase out the usage of bioplastics that do not stop pollution. Furthermore, in order to protect customers from greenwashing and enable them to choose sustainable products, the labelling must adhere to these criteria. The separation and recycling of plastics will be improved by labelling, which will raise the calibre of the recycled materials. The "myth" of bioplastics cannot be effectively dispelled till then.




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