December 27

Difference between bioplastic and biodegradable plastic

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difference between bioplastic and biodegradable plasticWith the increase in the use of eco-friendly alternatives, companies are approaching the plastic problem in different ways. Manufacturers and packaging factories have now started experimenting with various alternatives to plastics, including two famous materials; bioplastic and biodegradable plastic.

Both of these have been immensely popular as environmentally friendly alternatives, offering the same properties as regular plastic but with a smaller carbon footprint. Sustainable to-go containers made from these materials have become a major selling point among customers of restaurants (Find out more about the different types of sustainable containers available in the market).

However, there is a common misconception that both of these alternatives to plastic are the same. In reality, there is a major difference between bioplastic and biodegradable plastic. So how do we know if something is made from bioplastic or biodegradable plastic? Well, this article will discuss exactly that.

 

So let’s begin!

 

What are bioplastics and biodegradable plastics?

Bioplastic

Bioplastics are basically plastic-like materials made from ingredients other than petroleum. These may include (but are not limited to):

  • Corn
  • Sugarcane
  • Micro-organism engineering

The plastics that are created using the above-mentioned ingredients (except micro-organism engineering) are known as polylactic acids or PLAs. PLAs are famous for producing alternative food packaging, as well as a number of environmentally friendly containers for restaurants.

The bioplastics created from micro-organisms are known as polyhydroxyalkanoates or PHAs. PHAs are usually made for sterile environments, where normal plant-based materials may not be the best option, and understandably are expensive to produce. The most popular use of PHAs is in medical equipment such as sutures.

 

Biodegradable plastic

The first difference between bioplastic and biodegradable plastic is that biodegradable plastics are not made from plant-based materials, but are made from the same oil used to make regular plastic materials, just with a few additives that would allow it to decompose much more easily. These plastics are often marketed by companies as photodegradable or oxy degradable and are quite common in soft packaging forms such as biodegradable bags.

Biodegradable plastics have gained quick popularity among consumers because they claim to be fully compostable, even in your backyard. (as opposed to bioplastics which require a certain temperature to break down properly). As biodegradable plastic is made essentially from the same materials like plastic, the only added cost in the manufacturing process comes from the addition of chemicals to help decompose the plastic

 

Biodegradability

Bioplastic

Bioplastics are known for being completely biodegradable, which is also why many companies have switched from recyclable plastic to using a fully biodegradable product. The main problem with plastic is that it is made from oil, which is primarily a product of carbon. As plastic can’t decompose, it is incinerated, releasing a ton of carbon into the atmosphere. Switching to bioplastics such as PLA meant that people were no longer worried about the huge amounts of carbon being released whenever the material is disposed of in landfills. When PLAs decompose, they produce a very low amount of carbon, therefore theoretically help reduce the carbon footprint.

Well, theoretically…

Although bioplastics, specifically PLAs, are considered to be “fully biodegradable”, many people don’t realize that there is a slight catch to that. PLAs require special conditions in order to decompose, which are not found in your backyard compost. If you try to add bioplastics to your homemade compost, they’re going to act as regular plastic. If you accidentally leave a bioplastic package on the beach and it wanders into the ocean, the bioplastic will still act as regular plastic and cause harm to the marine life.

In order to decompose PLAs properly, you need to have a proper environment, often found in industrial composts. These industrial composts are able to bring the bioplastic to a proper temperature where it can safely decompose. The bioplastics are also completely recyclable, so if they do end up in landfills, they’re probably going to be recycled into other packaging materials.

 

Biodegradable plastic

Biodegradable plastics are also famous for being fully compostable and biodegradable, even in normal conditions. Known as oxy degradable and photodegradable, the biodegradable plastic is able to decompose when given prolonged exposure to oxygen and sunlight. However, the difference between bioplastic and biodegradable plastic when it comes to biodegradability is that biodegradable plastic is still, technically, plastic. If it breaks down and decomposes, it will release carbon into the atmosphere, which is obviously not good for the environment.

Another issue with biodegradable plastic is that the chemicals being added to make the plastic more “environmentally friendly” are not exactly safe for the environment. In fact, if you compost the plastic in your backyard, there is a good chance the decomposition process leaves some toxic residue behind the chemicals. In small quantities, that’s not much of a problem, but just knowing that you are potentially adding toxic chemicals to your compost pile is definitely something to worry about.

As with bioplastics, biodegradable plastics also require a certain temperature in order to break down properly. Although the temperatures are not as high and a normal sunny day can be enough to break them down, if biodegradable plastic ends up in the ocean, it won’t decompose and end up polluting the oceans just like regular plastic.

 

Overall sustainability

Bioplastic

Considering that bioplastics are technically not real plastic, but made from organic material such as plants, they can be considered environmentally friendly and are fully biodegradable, given the proper environment. However, the environmental benefit of bioplastic is certainly in the hands of the consumer rather than the product itself.

The consumer must be aware that bioplastic is not biodegradable under normal temperatures, therefore should always look to dispose of it properly. Due to the resemblance of PLAs and other bioplastics with regular non-recyclable plastic, many people may also throw bioplastic away as a non-recyclable instead of disposing of it in the recycling bin.

Thankfully, the increased awareness campaigns are allowing consumers to know more about the products and their packaging, helping them make the proper disposal decision after use.

As bioplastics are created from plant-based materials such as corn, question marks have arisen on whether the ingredients for bioplastic are being sourced responsibly. Corn is considered a staple in a few third world countries, and creating plastic from such material would mean a shortage in the amount of food available. Bioplastics have continued to face immense opposition as to whether the decision to make plastic from food is a sensible one.

 

Biodegradable plastic

As bioplastics aren’t really made from petroleum, they can be considered as a good sustainable alternative to plastic. However, this is not the case with biodegradable plastic. Biodegradable plastics are still essentially made from plastics, and therefore they aren’t exactly reducing the carbon footprint.

Another difference between bioplastic and biodegradable plastic when it comes to sustainability, is that bioplastic in most cases don’t leave any toxic residue behind when they decompose; there may be, in some cases, harmful chemicals that get left behind but since the decomposition process is done in industrial compost, it is generally well taken care of. As we saw above, that is not the case with biodegradable plastic, which contains a plethora of harmful chemicals to break the plastic down.

Biodegradable plastics have received increasing opposition, even from the governments of various countries due to their shady claims of being “fully biodegradable and compostable”. In fact, an investigation was made on biodegradable plastics and their “environment-friendliness”. Turned out that there were indeed a few problems with biodegradable plastic, including that they were never completely compostable or biodegradable in normal conditions, and just as harmful to the environment as regular plastic if not properly disposed of.

However, with that being said, given the proper condition, biodegradable plastics are somewhat contributing towards the benefit of the environment. Since they are considered biodegradable, they can also be properly disposed of in industrial composts as opposed to regular plastic, which can only be incinerated, leaving a huge amount of toxic chemicals behind. It all depends on how they are treated after being used up.

 

Summary

Bioplastic Biodegradable plastic Regular plastic
Ingredients Made from plant-based material Made from petroleum with additives Made from petroleum
Biodegradability Fully biodegradable (under high temperature) Partially/Fully biodegradable (dependent upon temperature) Not biodegradable
Carbon Footprint Smaller carbon footprint Significant carbon footprint Greatest carbon footprint
Toxicity Rarely releases toxic chemicals May release small amounts toxic chemicals on decomposing Releases large amounts of toxic gases on burning
Overall Sustainability score 7.5 5 0

 

Which one to choose?

Although there is a clear difference between bioplastic and biodegradable plastic, both of them offer some environmental benefits in their own respects. Given the proper conditions, they can prove to be of immense importance in reducing the use of conventional plastic in our daily lives. It is good to see companies making use of both alternatives where appropriate. A good example is the sustainable trash bags made using both biodegradable plastics as well as bioplastics which have become very popular among consumers in the United States (Check out the list of the top 5 sustainable trash bag brands).

Although both these alternatives offer advantages and disadvantages, it all comes down to whether we properly dispose of them after use. No product, no matter how environmentally friendly, is going to take care of itself unless we play a part in ensuring that it receives the best environment for performing in the most environmentally friendly way. With a little effort, we can make a big difference in reducing the impact of the world’s greatest pollutant.


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