Bioplastics Chronicles

National Geographic Published an Article on Bioplastics

Here's a summary of the article published by National Geographic on bioplastics

The article provides some facts on plastics:

  • 18 trillion pounds of plastic have been produced to date;
  • 18 billion pounds of plastic flows into the ocean every year;
  • plastic is found in fish, animals and humans;
  • eight % of the world’s oil is used to make plastic.

Is bioplastics an alternative?

Is bioplastic the panacea for our environmental woes? An easy-to-use single-use item that feels like plastic minus the guilt?

What is bioplastic?

Bioplastic simply refers to plastic made from plant or other biological material instead of petroleum. It is also often called bio-based plastic.

  • polylactic acids (PLAs) found in plants like corn and sugarcane is commonly used in food packaging. It often comes from large industrial facilities producing ethanol and is thus the cheapest source of bioplastic.
  • polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs) engineered from microorganisms, commonly used in medical devices like sutures and cardiovascular patches.

Ramani Narayan, chemical engineer from Michigan State University said:

“The argument [for bio-based plastics] is the inherent value of reducing the carbon footprint.”

Proponents of bioplastic believe plastic item will releases new carbon to the atmosphere when they’re discarded while bioplastics simply returns the carbon the plants sucked up while growing. However, bioplastics generates pollution from fertilizers and land diverted from food production (food vs fuel debate).

Environmental engineer and National Geographic explorer Jenna Jambeck said:

“Where is it grown? How much land does it take up? How much water is needed. Whether bio-based plastics are ultimately better for the environment than oil-derived ones is a big question based on many ‘ifs. In other words, there’s no clear answer at present. If PLA does leak out, it also will not biodegrade in the ocean, It’s really not any different from those industrial polymers. It can be composted in an industrial facility, but if the town doesn’t have one, then it’s not any different.”

What happens when we’re done with it?

Sent to a landfill, recycled or sent to an industrial compost site. But bioplastics won’t degrade on their own in a meaningful timeframe. If they end up in marine environments, they’ll break down into micro-sized pieces.

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