Bioplastics - are they all they are cracked up to be?

What are bioplastics?

They are either plastics derived from purely renewable resources or plastics that are biodegradable and compostable.

Does the use of bioplastics reduce our reliance on fossil fuel for plastic?

Yes, so long as the transport and production of the material does not require as much fossil fuel as normal plastic production. A bioplastic imported from a manufacturer that uses coal generated electricity for instance, may in fact have higher fossil fuel inputs than conventional plastic made in New Zealand where the majority of our grid electricity is renewable.

Does the use of bioplastics reduce the amount of plastic going to landfill? And what about greenhouse gas emissions?

Yes, but only if there is the right infrastructure to sort the bioplastics, recycle or compost them, and the transport used doesn’t require as much fossil fuel as fossil plastics.

Is infrastructure available in New Zealand to process bioplastics appropriately?

The short answer at present is no. The facilities for composting exist, but neither private nor council waste management services in New Zealand collect and separate bioplastics for recycling waste at this stage.

How long does it take the compostable class of bioplastics to breakdown?

Bioplastics are designed to be composted in commercial composting facilities where conditions are optimised. This takes between 90-180 days.

Can bioplastics be home composted?

Home composting conditions (e.g. heat and moisture) vary widely and it is difficult to guarantee that bioplastics will compost in the home compost.

Other environmental considerations

Another consideration when weighing up the environmental attributes of bioplastics relates to land use. For many of us bio material from agricultural waste would be considered better than plant material grown on land that was deforested for the purpose, or land that was previously used for agricultural food crops.

In summary, bioplastics can be, but are not always, environmentally better than fossil plastics. This depends on:

  • the material they are based on,
  • the fossil energy required to grow and transport the material
  • what happens to the bioplastics at the end of life
  • end of life destiny of the fossil plastic otherwise used.

How can I tell if bioplastics are right for my needs?

With so many variables to consider, from manufacturer to transport to disposal, the best way to assess the environment credentials of a bioplastic is to use Life Cycle Assessment as a tool to capture and quantify all the variable.

If you would like a copy of the full article or would like to discuss Life Cycle Assessment please contact Kimberly.

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