Can bioplastics play a role in minimizing the plastic soup?

This ecological disaster, which currently takes place before our eyes, is increasingly addressed by a wide coalition of stakeholders as a serious and complex societal problem. More and more alarming reports are written about the presence of so-called micro-and nanoplastics, smaller than 5 mm, in our food chain and even on our plates.The consequences of our plastic waste become devastating. All lives in and around the rivers and oceans are put at risk because of the floating plastic pollution as animals mistake plastic waste for a viable foodsource. 

Worldwide recycling rates are low and ocean plastics can hardly be recycled, let alone all be cleaned from alle plastic.Bioplastics are often put forward as the solution to this pressing problem, but to what extent can bioplastics truly make a difference? At Bio Futura we are, as supplier of bioplastics, among other materials, not free of bias, but we do believe that it still can be a good reason to address this subject. In this article we’ll make an attempt to do so in the most objective manner. 

The main question is therefore: can bioplastics play a role in minimizing plastic waste in rivers and oceans?

Foto: Paul Kennedy

No, bioplastics are not the answer to the plastic waste pollution in the oceans or a panacea to the plastic soup. Recently, Wageningen University & Research reviewed all the research on bioplastics and this resulted in the scientific report Biobased and biodegradable plastics; two important characteristics that can be attributed to various types of bioplastics.The study included that a type of biodegradable plastics can be broken down by microorganisms in the sea. However, there are also bioplastics to which artificial additives are added. The result is that they are no longer fully biodegradable (and compostable). Moreover, there are bioplastics that are biobased or partially biobased non-biodegradable plastics such as (biobased PE, PET, PA and PTT).

No, consumers cannot easily distinguish the appearance of bioplastics from conventional plastic products and identify appropriate disposal options; different types of bioplastics are hard to discern.The result is that bioplastics are often not collected separately and thereby the benefits of bioplastics have been not exploited sufficiently. There is also the misconception that all bioplastics are biodegradable and compostable. Almost all bioplastic don’t dissolve completely in the ocean. This process often only takes place under certain  conditions (such as temperature, humidity, presence of microorganisms).

No, as yet there is no efficient collection system for bioplastic waste. In order to exploit all advantages of bioplastics and close the loop, most biobased and biodegradable plastics should be recycled into high-quality products.Unfortunately that doesn’t always happen in the Netherlands due to the small volumes. As a result, bioplastics are frequently incinerated with the rest of the waste. Higher quantities of bioplastics would, however, make recycling easier and bring financial incentives. In the case of composting bioplastics, many industrial composting facilities fear accepting compostable plastics in the organic waste stream as it could encourage, accidental or deliberate, disposal of (non-compostable) plastics via organic waste stream. Some types of bioplastics still take longer to compost, which can lead to inefficiency for waste processors. So far, biodegradable plastics are not a solution to the issue of reducing the plastic soup in the oceans. With better agreements for investments in recycling and composting opportunities, bioplastics have the potential to become greener than ever and enable a more sustainable future. 

Yes, some bioplastics, such as PLA (polyactic acid), are used as medical implants that biodegrade within the body over time. PLA (without additives) is compatible and biodegradable, made out of corn or other raw materials that are fermented to produce lactic acid and then polymerized to make PLA. 

Yes, innovative new bioplastic types, such as PHA, Glycix and Lactips, are developed. These bioplastics have a great advantage of breaking down extremely fast and dissolve when making contact with oxygen and/or water.The biobased and biodegradable resin called Glycix was discovered accidentally during a research project into biofuel. According to Prof. Rothenberg, co-inventor of Glycix, the new bioplastic breaks down under influence of water into two completely natural compounds, which are widely available in nature; citric acid and glycerol. The rate of the degradation depends on the hardness of the bioplastic. Read more:

Yes,  there are ‘OK biodegradable Marine’ certified products available on the market, such as fishing nets, which guarantee biodegradation in a natural freshwater environment. The degree of biodegradability must reach 90% or more under seawater (30℃) within 6 months. This certificate is granted by TUV Austria. More information you can find here:

Yes, certified compostable bioplastics/ biobased products and packaging featuring the OK compost label guarantee complete biodegradability in an industrial composting plant or even in your garden compost heap if certified (OK Compost Home). This is an another waste processing and recycling opportunity that is not available for non compostable  petroleum-based plastics (the majority of plastics available). In the absence of this possibility, the chance is much higher that these traditional plastics are not matched in the right recycling infrastructure. Switching to compostable bioplastics would mean that they end up more often in industrial composting facilities where useful compost or biogas can be created.

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