There are many misconceptions and myths regarding bioplastics. For example, as opposed to the belief of many, not all bioplastics are biodegradable, but bioplastics can be used in engineering applications.:
According to European Bioplastics e.V., “a plastic material is defined as a bioplastic if it is either biobased, biodegradable, or both”. So just as there are many different types of fossible-based plastics, there already many different types of bioplastics with various properties and applications.
Biobased: The term ‘biobased’ means that the material or product is (partly) derived from biomass (plants). Biomass used for bioplastics stems from e.g. corn, sugarcane, or cellulose.
Biodegradable: Biodegradation is a chemical process during which microorganisms that are available in the environment convert materials into natural substances such as water, carbon dioxide, and compost (artificial additives are not needed). The process of biodegradation depends on the surrounding environmental conditions (e.g. location or temperature), on the material and on the application.
So clearly, not everything “biobased” is necessarily “biodegradable” (also see figure below).
The ability for a material to “biodegrade” does not depend on its specific resource, but is rather linked to its chemical structure. In other words, biobased plastics may be non-biodegradable, and fossil based plastics could also be biodegradable:
There is nothing in fossil-based plastics that bioplastics can‘t do!
Today, bioplastic alternatives could replace 85% of all fossil-based plastics because they have the same chemical properties. This is also why in principle, bioplastics can be recycled within existing waste streams, if they are not compostable. Today’s world-wide production capacities indicate how bioplastics are used in a wide range of product applications:
Bioplastics still have a long way to go: Currently, bioplastics represent only 1 % of about 360 million tonnes of plastics produced every year. However, the bioplastic market is expected to grow annually by 36% in the next five years. Besides increasing customer awareness and demand, here are a few other examples of important market growth drivers:
- Policy Engagement: the EU just agreed on a plastic tax for all non-recyclable products – this is just one of their measures towards a circular economy.
- Corporate Vision: Lego announced that by 2030, it will produce all products from renewable plastics.
- Scientific Breakthroughs: Recently a bioplastic has been developed that can break down in the natural environment shortly after entering the sea. Such innovations make bioplastics competitive not only in price and sustainability, but also in material properties.
It is important to realize that it is impossible to solve our plastic waste problem, if we limit ourselves to consuming less and recycling more – plastics are simply toxic. Bioplastics, in contrast, enable us to save our planet by creating materials from renewable resources – this is a major concept of the circular economy.