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Are Bioplastics Made from Natural Materials Better Than Petroleum-Based Plastics?

There’s nothing more omnipresent in modern life than plastic—it's an integral part of our daily lives, from shampoo and water bottles to car and phone parts. No matter how you’re reading this, plastic is invariably a huge part of the device you’re holding. 

While plastic was first invented more than 150 years ago as a replacement for natural ivory, manufacturers soon discovered that they didn’t need to rely on what occurs in nature anymore--wood, stone, metal, or bone--to create everyday objects. Instead, they could make the material synthetically and actually mold it (the literal meaning of plastic is “to mold”) into whatever they wanted. 

Traditional plastic is made from refined crude oil, natural gas and coal, and that’s what makes them so unattractive for modern, “green” life. In contrast, bioplastics are made from natural materials, like corn starch, that break down quickly and easily. They look exactly like petroleum-based plastics and can be used for basically everything that "traditional” plastic is used for. (If you have an Ando Visa Debit card, you have some bioplastic in your wallet.) 

Little did those first plastic creators know that what they started in the 1860s would be so massively produced on an almost unimaginable scale 150 years in the future...that the planet would be choking on it. Currently, it’s estimated that there are 5.25 trillion macro and micro pieces of plastic in the ocean, with about 46,000 pieces in every square mile of ocean. Every day, 8 million pieces of plastic are dumped into the ocean adding up to as much as 14 million tons every year.  

What is referred to as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch—essentially two different patches comprised of plastic, water, and debris--now covers approximately 1.6 million square kilometers — that’s bigger than the state of Texas. Plus, as the contents of the Patch continually break down from the sun and water, so about 70% of it actually sinks to the bottom of the ocean, creating an enormous trash heap.  

To add to its earth-friendly profile, bioplastic is made from polylactide acid (PLA) and requires only one-third the energy needed to make traditional plastics. Bioplastics generally do not produce a net increase in carbon dioxide when it breaks down since the plants used to produce it absorbed the same amount of carbon dioxide to begin with.    

On top of all of those advantages, according to a 2017 study, if the U.S. alone switched from traditional plastics to PLA plastics, greenhouse gas emissions would be cut by 25%! 

Good news, PLA plastics are made with common plants that are already being grown for food. Here’s a list and how they’re produced: 

  • Starch-based bioplastic: This is the simplest and most common form of bioplastic, derived from corn starch, often mixed with biodegradable polyesters. 

  • Cellulose-base bioplastic: This is made from wood, hemp, or cotton byproducts called cellulose or cellulose derivates.  

  • Protein-based bioplastic: This is made from wheat gluten, casein (from cheese production), and milk. 

  • Organic Polyethylene: This is made by fermenting raw materials like sugar cane and corn. 

Bioplastics are fairly easy to produce. For example, for starch-based bioplastics, corn kernels are processed and milled to extract the dextrose (a type of sugar) from their starch, which is then fermented in vats to turn the dextrose into lactic acid. The lactic acid is then converted into lactose, which is then polymerized to make long-chain molecules of polylactide acid (PLA). These types of bioplastics have been around for more than a century. In fact, the Ford Model T was produced in the early 1900s using parts made from corn and soybean oil.   

As the world is finally grasping the horrific side effects of using petroleum-based plastic, major companies are using bioplastics in their everyday applications. Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Heinz, Ford, Mercedes, and Toyota are using bioplastics in their packaging materials.  

While the possibilities to help the planet seem endless, bioplastics aren’t perfect. While most forms are generally compostable--meaning they decompose into natural materials that blend harmlessly into the soil in a matter of weeks when the natural molecules swell with water and break down--that’s not true for all.  

Not all bioplastics compost easily or even completely, and some leave toxic residue or plastic fragments behind. Some only break down in industrial composters or digesters, and some in bioreactor landfills (not by composting or in regular landfills).  

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