Bioplastics vs Traditional Plastics: A Battle for a Better Future

Bioplastics vs Traditional Plastics: A Battle for a Better Future

09 May 2023

From water bottles to food packaging and electronic appliances, plastic has become an integral part of our modern-day lives, but the convenience it provides comes at a great cost to our environment. The plastic waste produced each year is staggering, with traditional plastics taking centuries to decompose and causing widespread pollution in our oceans and on land.

However, as the world wakes up to the consequences of our plastic consumption, there seems to be hope on the horizon in the form of bioplastics – a more sustainable alternative that might offer a better future for our planet. In this article, we'll explore the differences between bioplastics and traditional plastics, including their environmental impact, and potential for widespread adoption. From PLA to PHA, we'll dive into the different types of bioplastics and their unique properties. So join us as we take a closer look at this battle for a better future – bioplastics vs. traditional plastics.

Landfill Site Plastic Pollution

What are traditional plastics?

Traditional plastics are synthetic materials made from non-renewable resources, such as petroleum, coal, or natural gas, and are produced through a process known as polymerization. The process involves heating and combining small molecules, called monomers, to form long chains of polymers. These polymers are then molded or shaped into various forms to create the products we use in our everyday lives. Traditional plastics have several desirable properties, such as being lightweight, durable, and versatile, which have made them a popular choice for a range of applications. However, their durability also means that they can take hundreds of years to break down, and they often end up in landfills or the natural environment, where they can cause significant harm to wildlife and ecosystems. Additionally, the production of traditional plastics requires huge amounts of energy, and the extraction of petroleum and natural gas contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, exacerbating climate change.

What are bioplastics?

Bioplastics are a type of plastic made from renewable biological resources, such as flax, hemp, cornstarch, sugarcane, or potato starch. They can be divided into two main categories: biodegradable and non-biodegradable. Biodegradable bioplastics can be broken down by microorganisms in the environment, whereas non-biodegradable bioplastics are made from renewable resources but cannot biodegrade.

Sugar Cane Field

Bioplastics have several benefits over traditional plastics, including reducing our reliance on fossil fuels and the carbon footprint of plastic production. They also offer unique properties, such as transparency, flexibility, and strength, which have made them popular in a range of applications, including food packaging and disposable cutlery.

However, bioplastics also have several drawbacks, such as higher production costs, limited availability of raw materials, and challenges with recycling. Additionally, biodegradable bioplastics require specific conditions to degrade, and if they end up in the wrong waste stream, they can still contribute to plastic pollution.

Types of bioplastic

There are several types of bioplastics, each with its unique properties and potential applications. One of the most commonly used bioplastics is polylactic acid (PLA), which is made from corn starch, sugarcane, or cassava. PLA is biodegradable and compostable, and it has similar properties to traditional plastics, making it a popular choice for food packaging, disposable cups, and cutlery. Another type of bioplastic is polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA), which is produced by microorganisms and can be biodegraded in industrial composting facilities. PHA is versatile and can be molded into various shapes, making it suitable for packaging, disposable items, and medical implants.

Clear Phone Case Bioplastic

Other types of bioplastics include cellulose-based bioplastics, which are made from wood pulp and have applications in packaging and textiles, and starch-based bioplastics, which are made from potato or tapioca starch and are used in products such as shopping bags and food packaging. There are also plastics made from flax and hemp which are often used in the production of automotive parts, toys, compostable phone cases, and other electronics casings.  The versatility of bioplastics makes them a promising alternative to traditional plastics, and ongoing research is continually exploring new ways to improve their properties and expand their potential uses.

Environmental impact of bioplastics vs traditional plastics

It's important to note that the environmental impact of bioplastics and traditional plastics is a complex issue with many nuances. While bioplastics are generally considered to be more sustainable than traditional plastics because they are made from renewable resources and can biodegrade more quickly, their sustainability depends on several factors. One critical factor is the source of the raw materials used to produce bioplastics. For example, bioplastics made from corn or sugarcane can lead to land use changes, deforestation, and the depletion of water resources if not produced sustainably. This is why it's important to use raw materials that are sustainably sourced and do not contribute to environmental destruction.

Deforestation Concept

Bioplastic manufacturing process 

Another factor that affects the sustainability of bioplastics is the manufacturing process. The energy required to produce bioplastics varies depending on the type of bioplastic and the manufacturing process used. For instance, some bioplastics may require large amounts of water and energy to be produced, while others may have a much lower environmental impact. It's essential to use manufacturing processes that minimize energy and water consumption to ensure that bioplastics are produced sustainably.

End-of-life of bioplastics

The end-of-life options for bioplastics also play a significant role in their sustainability. Bioplastics that can biodegrade have the potential to greatly reduce plastic waste in the environment. However, biodegradable bioplastics need to be disposed of properly and under the right conditions to ensure that they break down as expected. Additionally, not all bioplastics are biodegradable, and some may still end up in landfills or oceans, contributing to plastic pollution.

Plastic Bottles
Plastic Bottles Landfill

In contrast, traditional plastics are made from non-renewable resources and have a much higher environmental impact than bioplastics. They contribute significantly to plastic waste pollution as they can take hundreds of years to break down in the environment, releasing harmful chemicals and microplastics into it. Plastic waste also poses a threat to wildlife and marine ecosystems, as animals can ingest or become entangled in plastic debris, leading to injury or death. The production of traditional plastics requires large amounts of energy and water as well, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. It also leads to other environmental issues, such as depletion of non-renewable resources, pollution, and climate change.  

Overall, while bioplastics are not a perfect solution, they represent a promising avenue for reducing the environmental impact of plastic production and consumption. However, it's crucial to continue to develop sustainable raw materials and manufacturing processes and to educate ourselves on proper disposal methods to ensure that bioplastics are used in the most sustainable way possible.

Future use

We could say that in the battle for a better future, bioplastics and traditional plastics stand as two opposing forces. As concerns over plastic waste and its environmental impact continue to grow, bioplastics are gaining more and more attention as a possible solution for the future. Bioplastics have the potential to replace traditional plastics in a wide range of applications, from packaging and consumer goods to automotive and construction materials, and their use is expected to increase in the coming years. However, the widespread adoption of bioplastics will require a coordinated effort from consumers, businesses, and governments.

Recycling Facility

As consumers, we can play a role by choosing products made from bioplastics, supporting companies that use sustainable materials, and properly disposing of bioplastics to facilitate recycling and composting. Businesses can drive demand for bioplastics by investing in research and development to improve the properties and cost-effectiveness of bioplastics, incorporating bioplastics into their supply chains, and promoting sustainable packaging and products. Governments can incentivize the use of bioplastics through policies such as tax incentives and procurement requirements, and invest in infrastructure to support bioplastics recycling and composting.

While bioplastics are not a silver bullet solution to the plastic waste issue, they offer a promising path forward toward a more sustainable future. As the technology and production methods continue to improve, bioplastics may become even more viable and attractive for a variety of applications, ultimately contributing to a better future in which plastic waste will no longer be a threat to our planet.

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