Bioplastic’s Potential: Can It Replace Traditional Plastics?

Updated January 2, 2024

The plastic age has revolutionized our world but at a significant environmental cost. Bioplastics have emerged as a beacon of hope. But how did they come into existence, and what makes them different?

History of Bioplastics

Bioplastics aren't a new concept. The first synthetic polymer, created in the early 20th century, was derived from plant material. However, with the rise of petroleum-based plastics, bioplastics took a backseat until recent environmental concerns brought them back into the limelight.

The 5 Most Common Types of Bioplastics

1. Cellulose-based Bioplastics: Derived from the cellulose component of plant cell walls, these bioplastics are one of the oldest types. They are produced using cellulose esters and derivatives. While they are not entirely biodegradable, they offer a more sustainable alternative to petroleum-based plastics.

2. Starch-based Bioplastics: Starch, a natural polymer found in many plants, serves as the primary ingredient for this type of bioplastic. These bioplastics are fully biodegradable and are often used in packaging and disposable items. They can be blended with other materials to enhance their properties.

3. Protein-based Bioplastics: Derived from proteins like casein (from milk) or gluten (from wheat), these bioplastics are biodegradable and have been used in niche applications, such as in the medical field for sutures.

4. Organic Aliphatic Polyesters: These bioplastics are derived from organic compounds and are fully biodegradable. Polylactic Acid (PLA) is a popular example, made from fermented plant starch (usually corn). They are commonly used in packaging, agriculture, and even in the medical field.

Coca-Cola Plant Bottle and Net Bag Made from PLA

Image Source - European Bioplastics

5. Aliphatic-aromatic Co-polyesters (AAC): These are a blend of renewable and fossil resources. While they are not entirely derived from bio-based materials, they offer better biodegradability than conventional plastics.

The Science Behind Bioplastics

Bioplastics are produced by extracting sugars from plants like corn or sugarcane. These sugars are then fermented to produce lactic acid, which is processed to create polymers, forming bioplastics.
Unlike traditional plastics, many bioplastics can be composted, breaking down into water, carbon dioxide, and biomass under specific conditions.

Advantages of Bioplastics

Reduced Greenhouse Gas Emissions: Bioplastics can help reduce the carbon footprint as their production emits fewer greenhouse gases compared to petroleum-based plastics.

Less Plastic Waste: With the ability to compost, bioplastics can significantly reduce the amount of plastic waste in landfills.

Job Creation: The bioplastics industry can create jobs in the agriculture, research, and manufacturing sectors.

Diversification of Agricultural Markets: Farmers can benefit from new markets for crops used in bioplastic production.

Challenges with Bioplastic

Land Use Concerns: Large-scale bioplastic production might lead to deforestation and reduced biodiversity.

Water Consumption: Bioplastic crops require significant water, potentially leading to water scarcity.

Raw Material Prices: Fluctuating prices of crops can impact the cost of bioplastic production.

Scaling Production: Current production levels might not meet global demand, leading to higher costs.
astics to Traditional Plastics

Comparing Bioplastics to Traditional Plastics

Durability and Usage

Bioplastics have made strides in matching the durability of traditional plastics, but specific applications still pose challenges.

Environmental Impact

Microplastics: Even bioplastics can break down into microplastics, tiny particles that can harm marine life.

Bioplastic Littering: Biodegradable doesn't mean it can be littered. Proper disposal is still crucial.

a plastic drinking water cup with a straw discarded in a body of water

The Future of Bioplastics

Ongoing research aims to improve bioplastic properties, making them more durable, flexible, and cost-effective. With increasing demand, the bioplastics market is expected to grow, with more industries adopting them as an alternative.

The Global Impact of Traditional Plastics

Ocean Pollution and Marine Life

Traditional plastics have led to significant ocean pollution, with millions of tons entering the oceans annually. This has devastating effects on marine life, from ingestion of microplastics by plankton to larger marine animals getting entangled in plastic debris.

Health Implications for Humans

Plastics can break down into microplastics and chemicals, which can enter the food chain. Humans, at the top of this chain, can inadvertently consume these contaminants, leading to potential health risks.

Bioplastics in Everyday Life

Today, bioplastics are used in a variety of products, from packaging materials and disposable cutlery to toys and even car parts.

Environmental Specialists' Perspective

The urgency to transition to bioplastics is underscored by the alarming rate of plastic pollution and its detrimental effects on our environment. Environmental specialists advocate for bioplastics due to their reduced carbon footprint and potential for biodegradability. Many environmental organizations are actively researching and promoting the use of bioplastics. They emphasize the need for a circular economy where materials, including plastics, are continually reused and recycled, minimizing waste and environmental impact.

Major Corporations' Initiatives

Leading corporations, especially in the beverage sector, are recognizing the need for sustainable packaging solutions. Companies like Coca-Cola and PepsiCo have made commitments to increase the use of bioplastics and recycled materials in their packaging.

Coca-Cola: The company has initiated its "World Without Waste" campaign, aiming to collect and recycle the equivalent of every bottle or can its sell by 2030. As part of this initiative, Coca-Cola is investing in bioplastics and aims to make its PET plastic bottles with 50% recycled content by the end of the decade.

PepsiCo: PepsiCo has set a target to reduce 35% of virgin plastic content across its beverage portfolio by 2025. The company is also exploring advanced recycling technologies and increasing its use of bioplastics to achieve this goal.

Such initiatives by major corporations not only pave the way for a sustainable future but also influence other industries to adopt similar practices.

How to Replace Plastic in the Workplace and Business Operations

1. Conduct a Plastic Audit: Begin by assessing the amount and types of plastics used in your business operations. This will give you a clear picture of where replacements are needed.

2. Prioritize Bioplastic Packaging: For businesses involved in product packaging, consider switching to bioplastic options like starch-based or PLA-based packaging.

3. Educate Employees: Host workshops or training sessions to educate employees about the environmental impact of plastics and the benefits of bioplastics.

4. Collaborate with Suppliers: Engage with suppliers to explore bioplastic alternatives for products and packaging. This can lead to bulk purchase discounts and shared sustainability goals.

5. Promote Sustainable Practices: Encourage employees to use bioplastic or other sustainable materials in their daily tasks. This could be as simple as using bioplastic utensils in the office kitchen.

6. Set Clear Goals: Establish clear, measurable goals for reducing plastic use and increasing bioplastic adoption. Regularly review and adjust these goals as necessary.