The Good, the bad and the ugly: Bio plastics

With the ever increasing awareness of the environmental as well as the health hazards of oil derived plastics, the global industry is taking into consideration the plant based alternatives (aka Bioplastics). Bioplastics are derived from renewable materials like starch from corn, potato etc., soy protein, cellulose and lactic acid. Unlike synthetic plastics, bioplastics are non toxic and some of these can be easily decomposed to form water, biomass and little amount of carbon dioxide. Biofuels have been around for years, but they have been considered strongly for the commercial applications over the last decade owing to the environmental problems and the mounting cost of oil. Bioplastics have a number of advantages over their synthetic counterparts, but there are some concerns too. Let’s take a detailed look at the pros and cons of the ‘sustainable’ bioplastics.

1. The good:

Environmental benefits

Bioplastics are perceived to be environmental friendly and hence, the range of their applications is expanding. These biodegradable plastics are nowadays being extensively used to make shopping bags, packaging, cutlery, mulch film, food service products, fishing nets and many more such products. This polymer is emerging in markets because this material is non toxic and eco friendly. Biomass including trees plants and other organic materials, all of which are renewable, are required to manufacture bioplastics.

The biodegradable plastics are further decomposable and if not recycled, it gets absorbed in the earth in very less time. The break down process is also faster, giving off biomass and water, and minimum amount of harmful carbon emissions. Their manufacturing process does not cause any damage to the environment as there is little emission of greenhouse gases and the manufacturing process requires around half of the energy required to manufacture their non biodegradable counterparts.

Can this be better?

Utilizing biodegradable plastics have various ecological benefits. Without adding much of harmful content to the atmosphere, they are made up in a much cleaner way than the traditional plastics. In contrast to conventional plastics, which make use of fossil fuel i.e. petroleum, the bioplastics do not depend on these non renewable oils for their production. After being discarded these bioplastics are molded into water and organic content that mingles in the soil and make it healthier. The future seems great and promising for the bioplastics if few of the things, including the cost effectiveness and the disposal issues, could be addressed in a proper way.

2. The bad:

Metals leftover

Though these plant based plastics may apparently be green for the eco aware people, as they depend on biomass for their production, but the fossil fuels required to provide energy for their manufacturing, make them not so green. These materials can be composted only inside the composting industries and not in homes. The accessibility to these industries can be a problem as such facilities are limited in the countries. Bioplastics are made out of biomass that has to be cultivated. Genetically modified corn and soybean, which are mainly used as biomass, have to be fed with toxic pesticides thus contributing to environmental as well as soil pollution. Although, the Oxo Biodegradable plastic bags that consist of small bits of harmful metals like manganese, cobalt and iron are compostable, but the metal leftover may pose danger to the environment. Moreover, the plastic bags made of bioplastics are not as strong as the regular plastic bags and also have problems with moisture, limiting the use of bioplastics

Can this be avoided?

There are various methods of producing bioplastics and that is why the compostable plastics vary in their capabilities and properties. Almost all of these make use of renewable and organic components for manufacturing of biodegradable plastics. Moreover, the bioplastics market is quite small as of now, so the issues remain with the disposal, as the composting facilities are not everywhere. Scientists are trying to find out various methods to make these bioplastics more cost effective as well as eco friendly.

3. The ugly:

High toxicity

Bioplastics are required to be separated from the other plastics before they are recycled. These plastics, if are not chucked out in a proper way, will contribute more rubbish in the waste streams. The inappropriate means of decomposing will entail toxins like methane, carbon dioxide and ozone depleting chemicals to the atmosphere. The eco toxicity will also be contributed by carcinogens, acidifications etc., which mostly come from the pesticides and fertilizers used for processing bioplastics.

Why are we so critical?

With the rising environmental concerns and the shrinking oil supply, bioplastics are being considered as a good alternative. Although, the bioplastics are not being used on a large scale owing to the costs associated and a few downsides, they do hold a promising future. Keeping cons aside, it is without doubt a green option to choose bioplastics over regular petroleum based synthetic plastics.

The bottomline

With the ongoing advancements in the bioplastics industry, there seems to be a great potential for improvement. The disposal issues, infrastructure problem and the lack of production facilities or the composting centers could be the major problem for the growth of the bioplastics market. Still, we can’t deny the fact that the bioplastics are here to stay and its share is going to increase in the plastics market in the coming years.