Bio-plastics: a sustainable choice or just a rubbish alternative? | PDD

Bio-plastics: a sustainable choice or just a rubbish alternative?

By Joe

on October 2 2019

Concerns about plastics impacting both the environment and our health are now firmly in the spotlight. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the problem and the race is on to develop materials that will potentially, one day replace plastics. I have collated 3 groups of plastic alternatives that are currently in the limelight. On the surface, they appear to be a potential fix to the problem, however delve a little deeper and it is clear that these alternatives are not without their drawbacks.

Bio-plastic is a broad term for polymers derived from renewable organic substances. Starch and cellulose are widely used in bio-plastics; sourced typically from corn and sugarcane. They are used most commonly in packaging, typically for magazine wrappings and bakery bags. There is no disputing that the organic substances being used in bio-plastics are a more renewable source in comparison to using oil. However the overall environmental impact of using organic materials in plastics is extensively challenged due to the large amount of resources necessary to produce and process them.

With increased pressure for organic materials and land already; the demand for bio-plastics could have a significant impact on food prices; as well as pesticides and fertilisers being extensively used. Using food scraps such as orange peel and agricultural waste has been explored however consumer confusion relating to the disposal of bio-plastics has resulted in contamination throughout recycling plants. With the constant introduction of new polymers, recycling facilities cannot keep up; resulting in many of these new plastics ending up in either landfill or an incinerator.

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Biodegradable plastics are capable of being decomposed by living organisms; they contain additives to make them decay more rapidly. The term is starting to appear on a range of products such as shopping bags and bottles. The phrase ‘biodegradable’ has proven misleading as some consumers are under the impression that when disposing of them they will spontaneously break down without a trace. Unfortunately, the polymer is only able to degrade under specific, high temperature and humidity controlled conditions and still poses the risk of leaving a toxic residue.

Plastics labelled as biodegradable that end up at sea can inflict even bigger damage. They tend to descend to the sea bed, a cold environment unexposed to UV. These plastics could take hundreds of years to disintegrate. Once In the ocean, these plastics contribute to the countless number of marine species currently under threat of extinction due to ingesting and entanglement in plastic.

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Compostable plastics are a new generation of plastics that leave no hazardous residue when decomposed.­­ Again, the term is ambiguous for consumers as the majority of the polymers need to be disposed of at commercial composting facilities rather than in the garden. It’s certainly a step towards discovering plastic alternatives however my concern is that this is a backwards step; developing a polymer that is intended for single-use is influencing the disposable culture that is the cause of this crisis.

The manufacturing of plastic alternatives only addresses part of the environmental impact of plastic consumption, this must be accompanied by education and awareness around how manufacturers and consumers purchase, reuse and dispose of their plastics. Consequently, increased public interest and knowledge on the issue will accelerate research and development into sustainable alternatives.

Image credit: iStock

As specialists in Product Design and Experience Innovation we recognise the importance of dealing with the global plastics issue and make substantial efforts to apply sustainable propositions where appropriate. Embedding circular principles, material selection and disassembling structures where suitable are all fields that we exploit to achieve a more sustainable future.

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