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What are bioplastics?

Waste plastic. Sustainability. Environmentally-friendly. disposable plastics. global warming These are just a few of the catchphrases that have become commonplace in recent years as the world has begun to confront its usage of plastic and the effects it has on the environment.

It is estimated that humans manufacture more than 300 million tonnes of plastic annually, of which 50 million tonnes are single-use plastics. The production of single-use plastics has unavoidably increased over the past 12 months as goods like surgical masks and PPE have become increasingly important in our fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the question of what we will do about all this garbage remains.

Bioplastics or bio-based plastic substitutes that naturally disintegrate more quickly than petroleum-based plastics may be the solution for some. We will delve deeply into the world of bioplastics in this most recent blog post from The Plastic People and address important issues like whether they are the necessary environmental remedy.

What are bioplastics?

‘Any plastic that is created from plant or biological material rather than petroleum is referred to as "bioplastics" as a general term. As was already noted, these plastics are occasionally referred to as bio-based plastic.

The degree of biodegradability is the main distinction between products labelled "bioplastic" and "bio-based." Simply said, whereas many bio-based polymers are not biodegradable, bioplastics are virtually always biodegradable. Later, when we examine how ecologically friendly bioplastics are, we will come back to this issue.

Consumer demand for more environmentally friendly alternatives to commonplace goods during the past ten years has fueled the growth of bioplastics. Most frequently, research and production are concentrated on a few important single-use plastic products, such as plastic bottles, coffee cups, and food packaging.

How are bioplastics made?

Around the world, hundreds of different bioplastics and bio-based plastics are currently being made from a variety of distinctive biological sources. We are going to concentrate on the two types of bioplastics that are now produced most frequently: PLAs and PHAs.

The term "PLA" refers to Polylactic acid, a thermoplastic polymer that is made from the sugar in some renewable plants like corn and sugarcane. Polylactic acids (PLAs) frequently have properties with polypropylene and polyethene, and they may be produced with moderate efficiency and cost-effectiveness because the necessary equipment is already widely available. After PHAs, they are the second most popular bioplastic.

Currently, PHAs account for about 5% of the world's plastic output and consumption. Polyhydroxyalkanoates, a polyester created spontaneously by microorganisms in the form of starch, are the name of these bioplastics. PHAs can be combined with more than 150 different kinds of monomers to produce plastics with a wide range of properties, making them very versatile.

Due of their low production costs, PLAs are most frequently seen in food packaging and other consumer goods. PHAs, on the other hand, are typically only employed in medical equipment because they are often used in the injection moulding process.

Are bioplastics better for the environment?

The more challenging query is whether bioplastics are beneficial for the environment. The solution is ambiguous, as is the case with most sustainability-related issues.

This bioplastic, which begins with PLAs, is compostable, recyclable, and biodegradable. Therefore, any plastic bottles, bags, or other packaging constructed with PLAs will eventually decompose into biomass that may be recycled. For instance, single-use plastics derived from petroleum can take hundreds of years to disintegrate in the water, whereas a PLA-made plastic bottle will do so in 6 to 24 months.

There is a warning, of course. Businesses can and do offer PLA-made straws and bottles with the claim that they are compostable products. However, PLAs cannot easily break down in the water or at home because they require industrial composting conditions, which include a steady temperature above 58 degrees Celsius.

PHAs are subject to much more stringent requirements. This plastic can dissolve well in tropical environments and warm waters in one to two months, but in arctic and frigid regions, it can take decades.

As a result, even though PLAs and PHAs have the potential to degrade, the requirements are not always reached. In order to develop new, highly biodegradable plastics that are less reliant on environmental variables like temperature, further research and development must be done. The cousin of bioplastics, bio-based plastics, are not always biodegradable. Many bio-based plastics require as much time to spontaneously disintegrate as traditional plastics.

Our practices for recycling and trash management offer another answer. We do not currently have the infrastructure in the UK to handle significant amounts of bioplastics. This would also compel consumers to sort their plastics into various bins at home based on the makeup of the materials.

Should we keep producing bioplastics?

We should continue to work on and develop bioplastics and bio-based plastics even though the technology may not yet be at its most effective. Bioplastics and bio-based plastics enable us to reduce our consumption of non-renewable resources like petroleum, even though good material decomposition may be one of the many difficulties this industry of sustainable solutions faces.

Both PLAs and PHAs are produced using less energy than traditional plastics, and they often include fewer chemicals that could be harmful to our health. So, the world of bioplastics and bio-based polymers does have a positive side.

However, prevention continues to be our major line of defence against plastic pollution. We should all strive to consume fewer single-use plastics, which inevitably end up in landfills and oceans.

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