Bioplastics: more strides in the right direction

Man the solver, the solutions are out there


Synthetic plastics as we are all now painfully aware, are non-renewable. They often harm marine life and increase environmental pollution. But there ARE solutions – plenty of them present themselves as the  evolving human community does what it does so well, solving survival problems,

Bioplastics are plastics derived from renewable biomass sources such as vegetable fats and oils, corn starch, banana peel,  potato starch,  vegetable fats and oils, cactus, corn starch, straw, woodchips, sawdust, recycled food waste, etc. They can be made from agricultural by-products and also from used plastic bottles and other containers using microorganisms.

Can cellulose replace plastic? Like plastic, when dried the material is tough, malleable and transparent. Unlike plastic, it is also biodegradable. Cellulose fibres are complex polysaccharides (undigestible sugar molecules) that give plants structural support. They are the earth’s most abundant natural biopolymer.
Is potato plastic biodegradable? Potato Plastic is a biodegradable material, made of potato starch. This means that it will decompose to nutrients for the soil in only two months when it ends up in the nature. Potato Plastic can be used for products such as cutleries, straws and saltbags.
What Does Biodegradable Mean? Biodegradable refers to the ability of materials to break down and return to nature. In order for packaging products or materials to qualify as biodegradable, they must completely break down and decompose into natural elements within a short time after disposal – typically a year or less. The ability to biodegrade within landfills helps to reduce the buildup of waste, contributing to a safer, cleaner and healthier environment. Materials that are biodegradable include corrugated cardboard and even some plastics. Most plastics, however, are not biodegradable – meaning they cannot break down easily after disposal and can remain on the planet as waste for decades.

What Does Compostable Mean?  Compostable materials are similar to biodegradable materials, as they are both intended to return to the earth safely. However, compostable materials go one step further by providing the earth with nutrients once the material has completely broken down. These materials are added to compost piles, which are designated sites with specific conditions dependent on wind, sunlight, drainage and other factors. While biodegradable materials are designed to break down within landfills, compostable materials require special composting conditions. Compostable packaging materials include starch-based packing peanuts – an alternative to Styrofoam loose fill packaging that can be dissolved in water and added to composts for safe disposal.

Compostable Plastics: The Next Generation Of Plastics

Compostable plastics are the next generation of plastics- they come from renewable materials and break down through composting.

Instead of using plastic made from petrochemicals and fossil fuels, compostable plastics are derived from renewable materials like corn, potato, and tapioca starches, cellulose, soy protein, and lactic acid. Compostable plastics are non-toxic and decompose back into carbon dioxide, water, and biomass when composted.

Don’t get confused- compostable plastics are not the same as biodegradable, oxo-biodegradable, or bio-based conventional plastics. Some of the first alternative plastics were hybrid plastics made of both petroleum-based and plant-based resins. These hybrid plastics were not truly compostable because they contained petroleum.

Read more about the differences between biodegradable and compostable plastics here.

What is compostable plastic made out of?

World Centric® compostable plastics are made from Ingeo™, a resin made from polylactic acid (PLA). Ingeo is made from dextrose, a sugar produced by plants. Currently, the most common raw material for Ingeo is field corn, although other plant sources may be used in the future. On average, the production of PLA resin uses about 52% less energy than the production of petroleum-based resins. Similarly, manufacturing PLA resin produces 80% less greenhouse gases than traditional petroleum-based resin (Source).

Learn more about the front-end environmental benefits of compostable plastics here.

How do compostable plastics compare to traditional plastics?

Our BPI-certified compostable plastics are an environmentally preferred alternative to traditional plastics like polyethylene and polystyrene for a number of reasons:

Benefits Limitations
  • Made from plants instead of petrochemicals from fossil fuels
  • Manufacturing uses less energy and creates fewer greenhouse gas emissions
  • Tested to be non-toxic
  • Freezer safe
  • Suitable for hot food and drinks up to 100°F
  • Certified to break down in commercial composting facilities in 3 – 6 months
  • May be mistaken for traditional plastic by consumers
  • Needs to be stored at temperatures below 110°F, away from hot surfaces and direct sunlight
  • Not suitable for home composting
  • Not accepted at many commercial composting facilities

Do compostable plastics biodegrade on their own?

Compostable plastics will not fully break down on their own, as litter, or in marine environments. They need to be composted at commercial composting facilities that compost material for a longer period of time, since it may take up to 180 days for compostable plastics to break down. There are over 85 facilities in the United States that openly accept compostable plastics, and more that accept it on a case-by-case basis.

What’s the best plastic for food service settings?

Compostable plastics are the best choice for foodservice ware that will have food residue. This is because traditional plastics should not be recycled if they are covered in food. Plastic that isn’t clean and dry will not get recycled, and will contaminate other recyclables. Read more about the challenges of recycling plastic here.

When using compostable plastics, the container, cup, and utensil can be composted along with the remaining food residue. Because food and food-soiled materials make up over a third of what goes in the garbage, composting makes a serious dent diverting food waste from landfills.

What if compostable plastics aren’t accepted in your area’s green bin?

The most sustainable choice is using durable, reusable products. The second most sustainable choice is using products that can be composted with your local composting facility, since the product will have both “front-end” and “end-of-life” benefits. If your facility doesn’t accept certified compostable plastics, reach out to them to express your interest in being able to compost these products. With enough interest, they may start to accept these materials.

Finally, if you are choosing between certified compostable bioplastics that cannot be composted and traditional plastics, the life cycle analysis data shows that products made from a renewable resource, not petroleum-based plastic, are the most sustainable choice. This is true even if no composting option is available and the item must be sent to the landfill.

Instead of using petroleum-based plastics that create toxicity and environmental pollution, organizations and consumers can choose products made from compostable, renewable, and non-toxic bioplastics like PLA.


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About Steve Cook 2196 Articles
Director, UK Reloaded

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