The right interpretation of bioplastics

There are generic claims made on plastic products as ‘bioplastics’ and ‘biobased’ that can often mislead consumers. Moreover, it can have a detrimental effect on the environment under the disguised curtain of supporting the circular economy. An effort is made here to go a step further and acquire the right knowledge and develop the proper understanding. Broadly, it is imperative to learn about the feedstock source, bio-based content, and the end-of-life for sustainable sourcing, use, and disposal of the product.

Feedstock source: The production of biomass requires the use of natural resources such as land and water and the use of chemicals such as fertilizers and pesticides. Therefore, producing plastics from primary biomass can lead to direct or indirect land-use change, which in turn can result in biodiversity loss, ecosystem degradation, deforestation and water scarcity, as well as competition with crops intended for human consumption (food insecurity). Therefore, it is important to use organic waste, by-products, and non-edible residues (from agriculture, aquaculture, and forestry) over primary biomass.

Bio-based content: The plastic that contains less than 50% bio-based content is also commonly termed as a ‘bioplastic’ as there is currently no mandatory minimum bio-based content nor agreed certification scheme or label for a plastic product to be labelled as bio-based/bioplastic. It is better to buy only those products that clearly states bio-based percentage. The tool employed for measuring it is a radiocarbon-based method that I will cover in my next article.

End-of-life: Biodegradable plastics are not likely to persist and accumulate provided that they decompose fully in the receiving environment they are intended for and do not spill into an environment where they cannot biodegrade. This can happen, for instance, if a plastic which is biodegradable in soil is transferred by wind or runoff from soil into riverine or marine waters. The timescale for biodegradation must also be short enough not to harm ecosystems and marine life, for instance through ingestion by marine animals. It is crucial to get acquainted with the disposal system/environment as well as the timescale. This is possible when both producers and consumers act collaboratively and responsibly.

Source: EU policy framework on biobased, biodegradable and compostable plastics; Brussels, 30.11.2022 COM (2022) 682 final

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