Are bioplastics better for the environment?
Only 9% of all plastic waste ever produced has been recycled. About 12% has been incinerated, while the rest — 79% — has accumulated in landfills, dumps, or the natural environment.1
With such eco-anxiety-inducing statistics, it’s no wonder that brands and consumers alike are actively looking for alternatives to petroleum-based plastics. A collective awakening has spurred consumers to demand less plastic waste for the sake of our oceans. A report by McKinsey found 70% of Gen Z consumers are more likely to purchase from brands they consider ethical, with around 65% keen to learn the origins of products before they buy them. Brands are scrambling to find eco-friendly solutions to satisfy consumer appetite but risk greenwashing without the complete knowledge and expertise to back their claims.
The commoditization of bioplastics has been a positive and welcome solution but – are they really better for the environment? We take a look at the brief history of bioplastics, the difference between bioplastics and biodegradable plastics, and how you can take meaningful steps to lessen your environmental impact as a cannabis brand.
The history of bioplastics
The very first bioplastic ever produced was invented by Alexander Parkes in 1862, Parkesine, a cellulose-based bioplastic. The oil and energy crisis of 1973 drove the research and development of bioplastic. The early 2000s saw further steep price increases in oil driving the plastic-production industry to seek alternatives to petroleum-based plastics. Geopolitics and rising consumer demand expedited the growth of the bioplastics industry. Today, there are countless alternatives to petroleum-based plastics – produced chemically or by other plants, seaweed, and plant waste. But – what is the difference between bioplastics and biodegradable plastics?
Bioplastics vs. biodegradable plastics
It’s important to note that bioplastic and biodegradable plastics are not synonymous. Bioplastics are derived partially or entirely from biomass, renewable raw materials such as vegetable fats, oils, corn starch, straw, woodchips, sawdust, recycled food waste, etc. Bio-based plastics are not all biodegradable. Biodegradable plastics decompose in the wild or at least can be composted with industrial facilities. Biodegradable plastics are commonly produced from plant-based, renewable materials, and petrochemicals. Distinguishing bioplastic properties from biodegradable plastics is the first step in helping brands steer away from crossing the greenwashing line.
Polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs) are biodegradable in ambient environments, including the ocean.
Polylactic Acid (PLAs) are biodegradable under industrial composting but are not biodegradable in soil or aquatic environments ie. PLA is not home compostable.
- Starch blends are thermoplastic polymers produced by blending starch with plasticizers. All starches are biodegradable but not all plasticizers are biodegradable.
As long as biobased plastics have the same chemical structure as their fossil counterparts, they can be recycled.
Advances in biodegradation research
Recently, controversy surrounding oxo-degradable plastics have been sparked by reports of microplastic pollution ie. the fragmentation of plastic materials into micro-fragments as opposed to the desired and marketed bio-degradation. In 2019, the EU banned single-use plastic products made from oxo-degradable plastics. However, research and development have led to further advancements in the world’s quest to biodegradable plastics – specific microbe additives have been developed that can be added to virtually any petroleum-based resin that rapidly degrades the treated materials in post-consumer conditions (ie. a landfill).
So, are bioplastics plastics better for the environment?
In 2020, Polylactic Acid (PLAs) and starch-based plastics reached a market share of 65% of the total bioplastics market. With such great growth potential, it’s no surprise that the demand for PLAs and starch-based plastic packaging is on the rise by cannabis brands. While starch-based plastics may have a lower carbon footprint than petroleum-based plastics, the dangers lie in misinformation from labeling plastic items, without explaining the conditions needed for them to biodegrade. This can lead to plastic items contaminating the regular waste stream if the proper guidance is not provided, or followed.
Creating new products from renewable sources is undoubtedly favorable, however, bioplastics reportedly account for only 1% of the 300 million tons of plastic produced annually. While biodegradability could be the solution to our waste problem, correct composting conditions and the optimal waste management infrastructure needs to be taken into consideration. With local recycling facilities, it is possible to recycle petroleum-based plastics at the end of life. This causes less danger to the environment than bio-based plastics being disposed of incorrectly as mixing biodegradable plastics into the regular waste infrastructure poses some dangers to the environment.
Most importantly, arm yourself with the knowledge and expertise to execute your sustainability goals, while meeting regulatory packaging requirements. Bio-plastics may not always be the most environmentally beneficial solution due to its composting limitations post-life; labeling and informing your customers on how to best dispose of your products may be the best solution. After all, recycling a PET jar would be favorable to keep materials in the recycling loop as opposed to contaminating local waste streams with bioplastics that will not biodegrade in landfills.
How KacePack can help
At KacePack, we’re constantly researching and testing new material solutions to offer the best options to reduce our environmental impact. We understand that a 100% recyclable product poses less threat to the environment, as long as it is recycled at the end of life. We have the expertise and knowledge to provide guidance on meeting your sustainability goals while meeting compliance requirements.
At KacePack, shop:
- 100% recyclable packaging products
- 100% biodegradable mailer bags that decompose in your home compost in 6 months
Have questions on environmentally friendly packaging? Contact us or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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1UN Environment, 2019.