Bioplastics are biodegradable or compostable. That is what the bioplastics industry tells us. But this is not really true. In Flanders, bioplastics are incinerated together with the bulk of our litter.
Published in: EOS magazine 9, 2009 (in Dutch: Bioplastic is niet afbreekbaar - pdf)
The use of bioplastics for the production of beakers at music festivals or for magazine wraps is increasing. Both producers and supermarkets are increasingly demanding environmentally friendly replacements of pvc and pet plastics. These are produced from petroleum and release greenhouse gasses during processing or discard after use. Bioplastics – made of renewable resources like corn, yeast or potatoes – look like the perfect solution. They do not emit net CO2 into the atmosphere during post use processing, since they are made from plants that captured the CO2. For conventional petroleum plastics the picture looks different. When the plastic is discarded, CO2 that has been stored for millions of years in petroleum adds to global warming.
Most bioplastics claim to be biodegradable or compostable, but what manufacturers don’t tell you, is that this is only the case when bioplastics are handled under ‘controlled’ conditions. Controlled conditions do not apply to the compost heap in your garden and it does not mean that the bioplastic will break down and vanish when you throw it in nature. It means that the temperature needs to be high enough for complete breakdown. The latter is seldom the case in nature, but demands a specialized compost installation. As a result, bioplastics are found in oceans where they add to the plastic pool threatening sea birds, turtles, and other marine wildlife.
Bioplastics could be processed correctly in a compost installation, but only when they are collected separate from ordinary waste. At the moment, this is not the case and this is the main reason why the potential eco-friendliness of bioplastics is not used to its full potential. Secondly, there is a lack of communication towards the public on how to handle bioplastics. In Flanders, the OVAM (the Flemish government institution concerned with waste) does not communicate on bioplastics to the public. Upon asking, they said that bioplastics should be added to the ordinary waste. This is also the case for bioplastics with the OK compost logo. ‘We are afraid that people would also add ordinary plastic to the vegetable-fruit-garden-waste and contaminate the ‘green’ waste stream, since the difference between both plastics may be confusing,’ explains OVAM.
The bioplastics industry is a growing business. However, the properties of bioplastic materials are not always as good as those of conventional plastics. Moreover, production costs are too high and often double these of conventional plastics. But bioplastics do have a lot of potential, for example in medical implants that can dissolve in the body after some time. However, it will take ten more years to improve the ecological and technical properties of bioplastics and influence the world’s economy and ecology. But let’s not forget; bioplastics will never be the answer to the plastic garbage problem. We need to bring down our use of plastics and increase reuse and recycling.