Bioplastic vs. Plastic: Are Bioplastics Really Better?

The scariest thing about plastics is that if nothing is done to stop its slow suffocation and destruction of the planet’s ecology, plastic may become a permanent feature of our ocean’s ecosystems.

So much plastic pollutes marine environments, and especially in the form of microparticles in our oceans that birds, fish, and other marine life are mistaking it for food.

This is happening because there is so much plastic garbage in the ocean. 

Giant island patches of plastic waste and microparticles featuring millions of metric tons of plastic have been becoming progressively larger and polluting the oceans since the 1960s.

The problem is occurring right now and is poised to worsen in the coming decades. In the next 30 years, there might be more plastic waste in our oceans than fish. And the fish that our future descendants and we eat will progressively contain more and more plastic than natural organics.

And this problem will worsen not just because of progressively widening garbage patches. More ominously, scientists have estimated that over 80% of the plastic garbage polluting the oceans is sitting on the sea floors.

This is one out of numerous problems with plastic. Almost all of the plastic that has been mass-produced since the 1950s still exists. Plastic is manufactured from fossil fuels, natural gas, and to a lesser extent, plant matter.

Synthetic plastic made from fossil fuels and natural gas takes years or millennia to naturally biodegrade in the environment, depending on its manufacturing process. Some plastic never biodegrades.

Many plastics are made with toxic chemicals that pollute soil, water, and the environment when thrown away.

And unfortunately, not enough people seem to care.

Plastic or Bioplastic

There are many problems with plastic that the world does not seem to be currently addressing in a serious matter.

And while the continued use of plastic is choking our planet to death, it isn’t hard to understand why the general public is not taking the threat of plastic seriously.

Change is hard.

Plastic products like toothbrushes, hair combs, bottles, toys, plastic bags, and more make life convenient.

But while change is hard, it is needed when it comes to the invasive plastic pollution of Earth.

Could bioplastics be the answer to plastic pollution that we are all looking for?

Are bioplastics inherently better than traditional fossil fuel-derived plastic products? 

It depends on who you ask. And what kind of bioplastic is used. 

There is more than one kind of bioplastic. Some bioplastics are partly synthetic. Other bioplastics won’t biodegrade depending on the environment in which they are dumped as trash. 

And some bioplastics are deceptively “greenwashed” or commercially marked as biodegradable when they are only partially or non-biodegradable.

There are only a few classes of bioplastics that are 100% biodegradable – like hemp plastic.

To honestly answer the question of which is better, bioplastic or plastic, we need to examine the origins of each product, how they are created, and their benefits and detriments. 

We will first examine plastic, bioplastics and then finish by explaining hemp plastic is arguably the future of plastic and is better to use than traditional plastic.

Related: What is PLA?

Plastic 101

Plastic is a polymer. A polymer is technically a long chain of molecules that link together almost like a rigid chain structure. And it is this identical chain structure that makes plastic durable, moldable, and long-lasting.

Plastic can be created with synthetic matter, fossil fuels, natural gas, chemical additives, or organic plant matter. 

If you think about it, plant-based rubber is a bioplastic-like material. Charles Goodyear began processing natural rubber as a prototype bioplastic-like material in 1839.

However, the first fully organic bioplastic to be created by humans was created by Alexander Parkes. Parkes publicly exhibited at the Great International Exhibition showcase in London in 1862.

Parkes’s organic bioplastic was called Parkesine. Parkes created Parkesine by heating the cellulose in plant fibers and molding it into various shapes. And the organic bioplastic retained its shape after cooling.

John Wesley Hyatt created the first semi-synthetic plastic celluloid in 1869. During that era, a marketing firm offered a $10,000 prize to anyone who could create a material to replace the rapidly dwindling supplies of elephant ivory used to make billiard balls.

Many consumer products of the era were created with ivory, tortoiseshell, horn, bone, and other finite resources.

Hyatt intended to use celluloid as a substitute for ivory billiard balls. But Hyatt ended up creating a plastic product that would revolutionize the world. 

Hyatt first experimented with a substance called collodion, a syrupy and explosive mixture of nitrocellulose in a solution of alcohol and ether. Collodion is used to coat objects and was primarily used in photography and surgery.

During trial and error experimentation, Hyatt found that combining collodion, alcohol-treated camphor, an organic component of the laurel tree, and cellulose created a new plastic substance he called celluloid. Hyatt heat-pressed celluloid in molds and created durable shapes.

After creating celluloid billiard balls, Hyatt used celluloid to create the prototype for celluloid film that would be used in cameras, still photography, and filmmaking. The creation of celluloid helped to create the film market launched in 1900. 

Celluloid film was the film standard used for photography and filmmaking until the advent of the digital era.

In the late 1890s, formaldehyde was being mixed with milk proteins, cellulose, and plant resin to create plastic products called Erinoid and Galalith. British inventor Arthur Smith patented a plastic made from formaldehyde resin in 1899.

In 1907, Leo Baekeland created Bakelite, the world’s first fully synthetic plastic. Bakelite was the prototype for the industrial mass production boom of fossil fuel-derived plastics that would occur just over 40 years later.

And that brings us to the modern age.

Modern synthetic plastic today is made with refined natural gas or fossil fuels. The refined products are then combined with toxic chemicals and other products to make them pliable during the molding process and long-lasting.

The problem with fossil fuel-derived plastic is that every piece of plastic created via mass production still exists today.

Pros and Cons of Plastic

The plastic industry is too lucrative. Modern plastic is made from byproducts created during the refinement of fossil fuels and natural gas. And as long as fossil fuels are around, plastic will be around. 

Depending on how long supplies last, the world may not transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy for another 50 years to a century.

The global plastic industry was worth an estimated $579 billion in 2020. And the plastic industry will be worth over $750 billion by 2028

Almost 370 million metric tons of plastic were processed and manufactured in 2019. About 270 million metric tons were manufactured in 2010.

While there is no denying that plastic pollution is slowly destroying the world, those problems have been overlooked for so long because of plastic’s many benefits.

The plastics industry creates a lot of jobs and is big business. Many related industries are dependent on the continued production of plastic to thrive financially. And plastic is very cheap on the consumer market.

Plastic products make life very convenient. Almost every product that people take for granted every day is made from plastic. 

Toothbrushes, plastic bags, water and soda bottles, bottles for many consumer products, toys, plastic food containers, straws, the housing for electronics, and much more are made from plastic.

However, it can’t be argued the negatives of traditional plastic far outweigh its benefits.

Hundreds of species of fish are eating plastic on the ocean surface and at its depths. Humans eating plastic in fish is a problem that exists now and which will only get worse.

Over 150 million metric tons of plastic garbage are currently polluting the oceans. And over 8 million metric tons are dumped into the oceans every year. Unfortunately, the amount of plastic dumped into oceans annually could increase three-fold by 2040.

Plastic can take hundreds to millions of years to biodegrade. Plastic is non-renewable, so when we throw it away, we create even more to throw away, worsening the problem.

And plastic is created with toxic chemicals that seep harmful pollutants into the environment.

The list of problems caused by plastic may be too long to list.

But is bioplastic any better? Is bioplastic a solution to the problem of plastic?

What is Bioplastic?

Charles Goodyear arguably created the first natural bioplastic by mass-producing natural rubber back in 1839.

Henry Ford took the process a little further in 1941. In 1941, Ford created a car made entirely of hemp plastic composite. The vehicle’s steel frame was the only non-hemp part of the car.

Ford created hemp plastic by processing hemp cellulose, straw, resin, and other products, pressing it, and molding it into car panels and components.

Ford’s hemp car was stronger than steel. The inventor hit the vehicle with an ax and caused no damage. And the hemp car could be fueled with vegetable oil or hemp biofuel. Ford processed the hemp car plastic composite materials to be long-lasting, but most hemp plastic is 100% biodegradable and fully decomposes in months.

However, not all bioplastics are the same. And some bioplastics are partially or fully non-biodegradable.

“Bioplastics” is an umbrella term describing two kinds of bioplastic materials. Biodegradable plastics are tested to be biodegradable and will decompose usually within 90 days to 180 days.

Bio-based plastic is made from synthetic and organic matter. 

It can get confusing to consider. Basically, biodegradable plastics are not necessarily all bio-based. And not every bio-based plastic will necessarily biodegrade.

Some biodegradable plastic is greenwashed. They don’t biodegrade or will only biodegrade in certain situations.

So while bioplastic is not traditional plastic, they don’t solve the problem of plastic unless they are non-toxic and naturally biodegrade.

Let’s examine some bioplastic products. Because if you want to buy bioplastic products, you must know what you are getting if you’re transitioning from plastic. 

PLA

Polylactic Acid, or PLA, is a compostable and biodegradable bioplastic made from cellulose derived from sugarcane, corn sugar, or potatoes.

PLA is used to make bioplastic cups. 3-D printing materials and shopping bags.

PLA is much better than plastic. However, PLA will only biodegrade under exacting circumstances.

PLA must be composted in industrial composting facilities and temperatures over 136 degrees Fahrenheit. It must also be recycled in special recycling facilities. Under these circumstances, PLA will decompose in weeks.

PLA can take a long time to decompose in a landfill. And PLA does not decompose in seawater, negating any benefit over traditional plastic.

P.E.T.

Polyethylene terephthalate is a plastic that contains synthetic materials derived from fossil fuel products and plant matter like sugarcane. 

Most water bottles are made from P.E.T.

So, P.E.T. is bio-based, but it is not necessarily biodegradable. The molecular polymer chain in P.E.T. is identical to the synthetic plastic products it was synthesized from. 

It’s unknown how long P.E.T. takes to biodegrade in the environment. But it could probably last a long time in the environment, even though it is partially made from plant matter.

Hemp Plastic

One bioplastic that is 100% biodegradable and absolutely the better alternative to plastic is hemp plastic.

Hemp plastic is created by initially pulping hemp plants and fibers. The process of pulp better exposes the cellulose plant matter within.

The hemp cellulose is then treated with acid. After the hemp cellulose is soaked in water to remove the acid and dried, it is combined with other plant products and resin and then heat pressed.

The result is a bioplastic that is light, durable, and stronger than steel. 

Hemp plastic is 100% biodegradable. It decomposes within 90 days to 180 days in the environment.

And hemp plastic can be recycled indefinitely. 

If any bioplastic is arguably better than traditional plastic, it’s hemp plastic.

Are you interested in trying hemp plastic products? Contact PlantSwitch today to request a sample.

Related: Reduce, Reuse, Replace

PHA (Polyhydroxyalkanoates)

When bacteria ferment sugar or lipids, they produce and store PHA, a polyester type.

PHA can endure higher temperatures than PLA when used in bioplastics.

Food packaging, agricultural products, and medical equipment all include PHAs today.

Related: 10 Best Ways to Boost Sustainability in Restaurants

Classifications of Bioplastics

Bioplastics make a lot of claims about how environmentally beneficial they are. Let’s go over some of the most general statements.

Bioplastics that Aren’t Biodegradable (BIO-PET, BIO-PE, PA)

These bioplastics are difficult for microorganisms to consume. They are chemically equivalent to petroleum-based polymers manufactured from natural ingredients like sugar cane. 

They, like traditional plastic, will only deteriorate after a long period.

Partially Biodegradable or “Durable” Bioplastics

Under the right conditions, microorganisms can break them down into smaller plastic particles.

Regrettably, the procedure usually takes more than 3-6 months. These bioplastics are not compostable since “break down” is not the same as “decompose.”

Biodegradable bioplastics

Microorganisms will break down biodegradable plastics into carbon and water. 

The best biodegradable products will provide a time range for biodegradation and the parameters that must be met.

Plastics that can be decomposed

The majority of these polymers require industrial equipment to decompose fully. Although some will claim that their products will rot in home compost, often the case, it isn’t true. 

Related: 10 Worst Single-Use Plastics (Try These Alternatives!)

Compostable vs. Biodegradable Plastic

But what about bio-based polymers that are marketed as “compostable”? What’s the difference between biodegradable and compostable plant-based plastics?

Anything that degrades due to the action of microorganisms such as bacteria, algae, and fungi is considered biodegradable. Compostable straws are a great example of this. 

The amount of time it takes for a product to degrade is determined by moisture, temperature, and the materials it contains.

Despite being created from a plant like hemp to make hemp plastic, or animal, or mineral-based materials, biodegradable bioplastics do not always decompose entirely into their native components. They may leave residues behind on occasion.

Microorganisms can degrade biodegradable bioplastics into water and carbon dioxide in weeks if the appropriate circumstances are met. 

On the other hand, many biodegradable items may still contain conventional plastic, making them more difficult to degrade.

Anything that decomposes completely into natural components like water, carbon dioxide, and biomass in less than 90 days is considered compostable.

Compostable items will eventually decompose and provide nutrients to plants. They won’t leave any residue behind.

Can You Recycle Biodegradable Items?

Bio-based plastics are typically not recyclable in most countries. This is due to the difficulty in separating all of the components.

While bioplastics are technically recyclable, most recycling facilities do not accept them. They won’t until there are a lot more of them. 

Instead, here’s what you should do.

Bioplastics that Can Be Composted

If your municipality has a food waste bin, place these in it. Compostable bioplastics should not be disposed of in landfills since they will not decompose appropriately in this low-oxygen environment.

Worse, they’ve been shown to produce methane, which is 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.

What Happens to Bio-Based Plastics in the Landfill?

Landfills must be airtight, preventing water, light, and air from entering. These are the same factors that help biodegradable and compostable materials decompose organically.

Unless they are designed to degrade anaerobically – like PlantSwitch’s product line.

Ready to use sustainable goods in your home or business to contribute to keeping the environment safe and free of trash? Take a look at PlantSwitch’s variety of high-quality, ecologically friendly products, which are proudly provided by industry specialists.

Unfortunately, bioplastics take a long time to decompose in landfills. Depending on their content, they may even obstruct the decomposition of other waste.

Compostable bioplastics, as previously mentioned, can create methane in this low-oxygen environment.

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