Bioplastics: A distinction without a difference?

Watching BioplasticsA report from the Plastics Industry Association (PLASTICS; Washington, DC) released at NPE2018, Plastics Market Watch – Watching: Bioplastics, provides a new look at the way we define plastics and, in particular, the way we define bioplastics, including the terminology we use. “Bioplastics are defined as a plastic partially or fully biobased and/or biodegradable,” said the report, outlining the evolution of bioplastics from “traditional agricultural and renewable resources such as corn, sugar cane and soybeans,” to second-generation bioplastics from “non-food renewable sources including food byproducts, wood and sawdust,” and finally the next generation of bioplastics that come “from algae and other organisms away from food production that minimize environmental impacts.”

Currently, the report states, there are 21 bioplastic polymers in the marketplace, but delineating bioplastics from plastics can be confusing given that, as the report notes, even traditional fossil-based plastics (that come from ancient plants and organisms) can have bioplastic characteristics. Quoting Adam Gendell, Associate Director of GreenBlue’s Sustainable Packaging Coalition in a Packaging Digest article, “A bioplastic may be 100 percent fossil-based. It can be any combination of being partially biobased, fully biobased, non-biobased, biodegradable, compostable or non-biodegradable, so long as it is not both non-biobased and non-biodegradable.” The point, it was noted, was made in the article’s title: “It’s time for bioplastics to be plastics.”

Even NatureWorks’ Director of Public Affairs and Communications, Steve Davies, “has advocated” for no distinction to be made between traditional plastic and PLA, which people call a bioplastic: It should be just “another plastic,” said the report. 

Patrick Krieger, Assistant Director, Regulatory and Technical Affairs for PLASTICS, said in a Q&A in the report that, simply put, “if it’s plastic and either comes from the Earth or goes back to it, it’s a bioplastic.”

Certainly, every type of plastic is truly a “bioplastic” because they all come from the Earth, from natural resources that are all renewable. To call NatureWorks’ PLA, which comes from new plants in a long production chain filled with environmental impacts, a bioplastic while calling fossil-based petroleum used to make new polymers “bad” for the environment is completely unscientific. If, in fact, PLA were to drop the “bioplastic” from its definition, and the consuming public thought it was just another “plastic,” there would be no competitive edge for PLA. PLA would become as hated as every other plastic!  

Krieger provides some good information that perhaps the industry needs to feed to all consumers everywhere: “Biobased means the plastics are made at least partly from renewable resources, such as corn, sugar cane, soybeans and agricultural byproducts like sawdust. And biodegradable means that it will completely break through natural processes within a short period of time,” he explained.

“A common misunderstanding about bioplastics is that ‘biobased’ and ‘biodegradable’ are linked—they are not,” Krieger clarified further. “A bioplastic that is biobased may not necessarily be biodegradable, and a biodegradable bioplastic may not be biobased.”

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