Bioplastics are plastic materials that are either biodegradable or derived from renewable resources or both. Currently, petrochemical-based plastics make up 99% of the plastics market. However, production of bioplastics is predicted to increase to between 10% and 30% of the total plastics market by 2020.

Plastics: a versatile material

The term ‘plastic’ refers to material that is capable of being moulded. Historically, this included plastic materials from natural sources, such as animal horn, amber and shellac. However, with the rapid expansion of petrochemical-based plastics after World War II, plastics made from natural resources declined, and the term ‘plastic’ now generally refers to synthetic plastics.

With scientific and technological advances, plastics rapidly gained popularity during the 20th century. Plastics are easy to mould into complex shapes and are lightweight, flexible, durable, long lasting and cost-effective to produce. These properties make plastics very versatile and often better suited for many products than traditional materials such as metal, wood and glass. Consequently, their use is increasing all the time.

The problem with conventional plastics

Increasing use of conventional plastics is becoming unsustainable due to their reliance on petrochemicals – a finite and depleting resource. The durability of plastic products is also creating serious environmental issues because of the amount that we use and discard every day and the fact that they take hundreds of years to break down. For example, in New Zealand, approximately 252,000 tonnes of plastic waste is disposed of in landfills annually – enough to fill approximately 200 Olympic-sized swimming pools! This takes up approximately 20% of all landfill space. These concerns are leading to a greater interest in bioplastics.

Growth of bioplastics

The predicted growth in the production of bioplastics is being driven by a number of factors, including:

  • the fluctuating cost of petroleum and the drive for independence from fossil fuels
  • increasing availability of bioplastics and decreasing cost as greater volumes are produced
  • environmental and social impacts of petrochemical-based plastics including carbon footprint, sustainability, pollution involved in end-of-life disposal and health concerns such as leaching of chemicals from plastic packaging into food products
  • branding and product differentiation as manufacturers perceive a marketing advantage
  • waste minimisation regulations
  • the fact that plastic products are useful and we’ve become used to using them.

Properties of bioplastics

Bioplastics is a broad term used to describe a range of plastic materials that are either biodegradable or derived from renewable resources or both.

We can generally group bioplastic materials according to their properties:

  • Bio-based and biodegradable bioplastics: These are made using renewable resources, such as plant biomass, and will biodegrade under certain environmental conditions. These materials are suitable for disposable items, such as packaging, drink bottles, single-use food containers and cutlery. They are more sustainable because they save fossil fuel resources and, if disposed of appropriately, support further plant growth.
  • Bio-based and durable (non-biodegradable) bioplastics:These are made using renewable resources but are designed to have a longer life span (for example, carpet fibres and interior car panels). Using renewable resources makes these materials more sustainable. Also, using them to replace metal components in vehicles has the advantage of reducing vehicle weight, which increases fuel efficiency.
  • Petrochemical-based and biodegradable bioplastics: There are some petrochemical-based plastics that can be biodegraded by the microbes in the soil, compost or oceans.

Disposal options for bioplastics

With the expected increase in bioplastic products, it’s important we understand the different categories of bioplastic and how best to dispose of each type – otherwise, they can contaminate waste systems.

  • Recycling: Many plastics can be successfully recycled into new plastic materials at the end of their life. However, if plastics are not sorted into different categories, mixing some degradable plastics with other recycled plastics can reduce the performance and life span of the recycled product.
  • Composting: Not all biodegradable products are suitable for composting. Products labelled ‘compostable’ must meet recognised international standards, which specify the composting conditions such as time, temperature and the environmental effects of the final compost. Also, industrial and home composting conditions are different. Where industrial facilities are not locally available, which is generally the case in New Zealand, compostable products are likely to contaminate other waste streams.
  • Landfill: Biodegradable and compostable plastics take a long time to degrade in the anaerobic environment of a landfill. Anaerobic digestion of organic materials also produces methane gas that, if not captured, adds to greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Where would you place composting of bioplastics on the hierarchy?

Overall, the most sustainable option for all plastics – whether petroleum-based or bio-based – is to reduce our use of them!

Potato plates

Potatopak is an innovative New Zealand company that makes disposable food ware from recycled potato starch. The products are designed to compost in a domestic compost system within 30 days. Find out more about these products and their environmental benefits.

Try this experiment to explore the degradability of different materials with your students.

Useful link

To find out more about degradable plastics in New Zealand download the PDF Managing the Transition: Degradable Plastics in New Zealand, created by Plastics New Zealand, from the EP TECH website.

    Published 16 May 2013