Pros & Cons Of Bioplastics (Advantages & Disadvantages)

In this guide, we outline the potential pros and cons of bioplastics (i.e. the potential advantages and disadvantages to this type of material).

It complements our separate guide about what bioplastics are, the different types of bioplastics, & other important key information relating to bioplastics.

 

Summary – Pros & Cons Of Bioplastics

Potential Pros

There’s A Range Of Potential Environmental & Sustainability Benefits To Bioplastics

Can Be Made To Be More Degradable, Or Even Compostable

Can Be Made To Be More Durable

May Not Contain Some Of The Potentially Harmful Chemicals Or Substances That Some Traditional Plastics Do

May Still Be Potential For Material Improvement & Market Share Growth

 

Potential Cons

Currently Doesn’t Make Up A Large Share Of The Overall Plastics Market

There Can Be Various Problems, Challenges & Limitations To The Use & Adoption Of Bioplastics

May Sometimes Have Environmental Or Sustainability Concerns

Waste Management Systems In Some Cities & Towns May Not Be Adequate To Manage Some Bioplastics

Bioplastics May Need A Separate Recycling Stream To Traditional Plastics

Some Bioplastics Use Animal Co-Products Or ‘Leftovers’

Some Bioplastics May Contain Toxic Chemicals

May Use GMOs In Some Instances

Some Question The Impact & Potential Tradeoffs Of Growing Biomass Specifically For Bioplastics, Biofuels, & Other ‘Bio’ Products

There’s Been Some Criticism In The Past About Standards For Bioplastics  

 

Potential Pros Of Bioplastics

There’s A Range Of Potential Environmental & Sustainability Benefits To Bioplastics

A few potential benefits might include:

– Being Made From Renewable Biomass Sources

Such as vegetable fats and oils, other plant based materials, recycled food waste, and so on

In comparison, traditional plastics come from fossil fuel feedstock such as petroleum or natural gas, which are generally considered as finite or non-renewable

As an additional benefit to some renewable feedstocks, wikipedia.org notes that starch in starch based plastics is ‘…cheap [in addition to being abundant and renewable’

 

– May Sometimes Have A Lower Carbon Footprint Than Fossil Fuel Plastics

wikipedia.org indicates this can sometimes be the case when biomass is used over fossil fuels, with one example being the use of sugar cane in some instances

 

– May Sometimes Involve Lower Non Renewable Energy Use Compared To Fossil Fuel Plastics

Various reports indicate bioplastics have lower non renewable energy use (and, news.climate.columbia.edu indicates that corn-based PLA bioplastic is one example of this)

Interestingly, news.climate.columbia.edu notes that if traditional plastics were ‘… produced using renewable energy sources, [GHG emissions] could be reduced 50 to 75 percent [but, bioplastics produced with renewable energy still have the best potential to reduce GHG emissions in the future]’

 

– Other Potential Environmental & Sustainability Benefits

Such as making use of food waste and other waste products that would otherwise be disposed of

wikipedia.org lists a range of other potential environmental benefits too

 

Can Be Made To Be More Degradable, Or Even Compostable

Some bioplastics are designed to be degradable or even compostable under certain conditions or in certain environments

They certainly degrade faster than traditional plastics in the right conditions

wikipedia.org outlines some types of degradable bioplastics as ‘… polylactic acid, polybutylene succinate, or polyhydroxyalkanoates’ 

 

Can Be Made To Be More Durable

wikipedia.org outlines two types of more durable bioplastics as Bio-PET and biopolyethylene 

 

May Not Contain Some Of The Potentially Harmful Chemicals Or Substances That Some Traditional Plastics Do

For example, some bioplastics may not contain chemicals or substances that can be found in some traditional plastics, like Bisphenol A

wikipedia.org mentions that bioplastics may exert ‘… lower human and terrestrial ecotoxicity and carcinogenic potentials compared to conventional plastics’

 

May Still Be Potential For Material Improvement & Market Share Growth

As research on material technology, and investment in the bioplastics market both increase, bioplastics may have potential to improve as a materials and increase their market share in the future.

One example of potential in the bioplastics market might be the use of oils derived from microalgae (algae are classified as third generation feedstock for bioproducts like biofuel and bioplastic)

 

Potential Cons Of Bioplastics

Currently Doesn’t Make Up A Large Share Of The Overall Plastics Market

From wikipedia.org: ‘As of 2018, bioplastics represented approximately 2% of the global plastics output (>380 million tons)’

Additionally, some reports indicate that the continued production of bioplastics is not slowing down the total production of traditional plastics.

 

There Can Be Various Problems, Challenges & Limitations To The Use & Adoption Of Bioplastics

wikipedia.org indicates that ‘Few commercial applications exist for bioplastics [and] Cost and performance remain problematic’

Additionally, clariant.com indicates that ‘… in many applications they still fall behind petroleum-based plastics when it comes to physical properties’

Soy proteins may be of an example of a protein that may have several problems or challenges to their use in bioplastics, and some PLA bioplastics may exhibit inferior qualities

Bioplastics like PHA may also be expensive to produce at the moment

news.climate.columbia.edu notes that ‘… PLA can be 20 to 50 percent more costly than comparable materials [but, the price may also come down in the future as there are new developments]’

 

May Sometimes Have Environmental Or Sustainability Concerns

– Sometimes Only Partially Made Of Renewable Materials

news.climate.columbia.edu for example indicates that ‘bioplastics [are] made from 20 percent or more of renewable materials’.

Therefore, the remaining parts of some bioplastics might not always be renewable materials.

 

– May Sometimes Have A Higher Carbon Footprint Than Fossil Fuel Plastics

wikipedia.org indicates this can sometimes be the case when bioplastic processes are less efficient

Additionally, it’s worth noting that when compostable bioplastics are sent to landfill because adequate composting facilities aren’t available in a town or city, these bioplastics may release methane

 

– Palm Oil Used As Biomass Feedstock May Have It’s Own Sustainability Concerns

It depends how the oil palms are cultivated though

The palm oil used may have environmental or sustainability issues with how the land is used and how it’s cultivated

 

– Durable Bioplastics Generally Aren’t Designed To Be Degradable

This is because of their molecular structure

And therefore, they have to be disposed of like other waste that isn’t degradable, such as traditional plastics

 

– Some Degradable Bioplastics Can Have Issues Fully Decomposing

Bioplastics designed to be degradable might only degrade and decompose properly under specific conditions or environments 

 

– Some Biodegradable Bioplastics Are Polymers Based On Fossil Fuels

science.org.au lists one example of a bioplastic like this as being ‘… polybutyrate adipate terephthalate—known more commonly as polybutyrate or PBAT’

 

– Other Potential Negative Environmental Impacts

wikipedia.org lists a range of other potential negative environmental impacts of bioplastics compared to fossil fuel plastics, such as potentially rating worse in the areas of eutrophication, acidification, aquatic eco toxicity, stratospheric ozone depletion, and other potential impacts which you can read in their report

 

news.climate.columbia.edu also references a study that indicates that bioplastics are responsible for greater amounts of pollutants (from agricultural chemicals), amongst other negative environmental effects.

They also outlined B-PET, which is a hybrid plastic, as having the ‘… highest potential for toxic effects on ecosystems and the most carcinogens, and scored the worst in the life cycle analysis’

 

Waste Management Systems In Some Cities & Towns May Not Be Adequate To Manage Some Bioplastics

For example, some cities and towns may not have adequate composting facilities for compostable bioplastics, and the bioplastics might be sent to landfill instead

In this instance, there’s less value and utility in compostable bioplastics in some regions

 

Bioplastics May Need A Separate Recycling Stream To Traditional Plastics

news.climate.columbia.edu notes that this is because of the potential for bioplastics to contaminate some types of traditional plastics (like PET)

 

Some Bioplastics Use Animal Co-Products Or ‘Leftovers’

The production of some bioplastics uses animal co-products or ‘leftovers’, such as animal proteins and fat

These co-products and leftovers may come from the bodies of livestock animals after they’ve been to the slaughterhouse

This can be an issue for individuals whose ethics don’t align with the use of animal derived products, or who want animal friendly products

 

Some Bioplastics May Contain Toxic Chemicals

sciencedirect.com indicates that ‘… little is know with regard to the chemicals that [bioplastics and plant based materials] contain and the safety of these compounds’

They provide further information about the potential safety, toxicity and chemical composition of bioplastics in their report

At least one report, by blogs.ifas.ufl.edu, indicates that because bioplastics still contain plasticizers and additives (to impact physical properties of the bioplastics, such as make them more flexible or stiffer), they can contain chemicals like phthalates.

news.climate.columbia.edu also notes that one study listed B-PET, which is a hybrid plastic, as ‘… [having the] most carcinogens’

 

May Use GMOs In Some Instances

Some people do not believe in the use of GMOs

This is an issue when GM corn is used as feedstock for some bioplastics 

 

Some Question The Impact & Tradeoffs Of Growing Biomass Specifically For Bioplastics, Biofuels, & Other ‘Bio’ Products

This can be the case where:

– Forests have been cleared to convert land use to agricultural land use

– Biomass production of 1st generation crops for ‘bio’ products happens in place of food production, and there’s still regions of the world that lack access to adequate food and nutrition

– The resources and inputs used to produce biomass (including 2nd generation feedstock crops) have a negative impact compared to the benefits of growing the biomass. For example, biomass production uses water, land, agricultural chemicals like pesticides and synthetic fertilizer, and so on

 

There’s Been Criticism In The Past About Standards For Bioplastics

One example of this is determining what the compostability of plastic means according to a certain standard – some think it’s misleading compared to what ‘compost’ or ‘composting’ traditionally means

How bioplastics are labelled as compostable has also been criticised in the past

 

 

Sources

1. Various ‘Better Meets Reality’ guides

2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bioplastic

3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8348897/

4. https://www.greenoptimistic.com/bioplastic-animal-fat-20130222/

5. https://www.science.org.au/curious/earth-environment/future-plastics

6. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0160412020320213

7. https://www.clariant.com/en/Corporate/Blog/2020-Blog-Posts/09/Bio-based-additives

8. https://news.climate.columbia.edu/2017/12/13/the-truth-about-bioplastics/

9. https://blogs.ifas.ufl.edu/mrec/2020/09/29/water-wednesdays-are-bioplastics-better/

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