The main reason why plastic is becoming so problematic is that it is immensely useful. We are using it in almost every sphere of life. In fact, no matter wherever you look, it is almost impossible to not find plastic there. Now more than ever we are facing the dilemma. Should we stop using plastic and curb our economic growth or should we keep on using it and destroy the environment? In this debate, companies are coming up with alternatives to plastic. Out of all these alternatives, bioplastic is standing in the front. If it works, in future years, it might take the place of plastic. However, with it too, there are many complications.
The Good, the bad and the ugly of Bioplastics
With the ever-increasing awareness of the environment as well as the health hazards of oil-derived plastics, the global industry is taking into consideration the plant based alternatives (aka Bioplastics). Bioplastics consist of renewable materials like starch from corn, potato etc., soy protein, cellulose and lactic acid. Unlike synthetic plastics, bioplastics are non toxic. Moreover, one can easily decompose most of them to form water, biomass and little amount of carbon dioxide. Biofuels are not new. They have been there for years. However, owing to the lack of popularity of plastic, they are becoming popular for the commercial applications over the last decade.
The other factors to this include environmental problems and the mounting cost of oil. Bioplastics have a number of advantages over their synthetic counterparts. On the other hand, there are some concerns too. Let’s take a detailed look at the pros and cons of the ‘sustainable’ bioplastics.
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.
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. 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. Therefore, 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.
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.
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.
Some Other Alternatives to Plastic
Plastic is derived from fossil fuels while glass is made out of sand. Hence, glass does not contain any harmful chemicals like plastic. If compared to plastic, glass is easy to recycle. In addition, you can reuse glass for several purposes, including storage containers, candleholders, flower vases, etc, in your home.
2. Liquid Wood
Image Source : Architerials
Liquid wood is a biopolymer that can act and behave just like plastic. However, it is derived from pulp-based lignin and thus, is both renewable and biodegradable. This would make a perfect alternative for those who like the feel of plastic, but still want to protect the environment from petroleum-based products.
3. Jute Fiber
Jute fiber bags are becoming a mainstay in many shopping outlets that have vowed to stop using plastic bags. Apart from being more durable than plastic bags, jute fiber bags are easy to wash and reuse multiple times. You can carry these jute fiber bags while shopping and avoid using the plastic bags offered by stores.
4. Milk Protein
Although milk protein is too hard and brittle for normal use, scientific advancements have led to the creation of milk protein that is more flexible and does not pose risks of cracking when bent. This milk-based plastic can emulate the qualities of petroleum-based plastic, but is biodegradable and thus, eco-friendly.
5. Corn based plastic
Research in the field of biodegradable plastic alternatives has led to the development of a corn based plastic called polyactides (PLA) which can decompose within just 47 days of landing up in a dump. Made of corn, PLA does not release any toxic fumes when burnt. PLA based plastics can be used for manufacturing cups, containers, utensils and other consumer products.