Plastic-free packaging and plastic alternatives are rising in popularity due to increased environmental awareness.
With a lot of information out there (and some misinformation), it can be difficult to tell what eco-friendly products are actually helping the climate crisis, and which are just out there to make companies a buck.
One common question that comes up is about a notorious waste-maker, plastic.
Is plant-based plastic or biodegradable plastic better for the environment?
In this blog, we will look at plant-based plastic vs. biodegradable plastic and explain what is better for the environment. Read on for all the answers!
- What is bioplastic?
- What is plant-based plastic?
- Is plant-based the same as biodegradable plastic?
- How are biodegradable plastics made?
- Why is biodegradable plastic bad?
- Why is plant-based or bioplastic bad?
- What are the pros and cons of biodegradable plastics?
- Is bioplastic eco-friendly?
- Is plant-based plastic better?
- What are the pros and cons of plant-based plastics?
What is bioplastic?
The term “bioplastic” is often used to refer to biodegradable plastic and plant-based plastic.
This is not usually correct, and it can get confusing, so let’s look at some definitions first.
The Plastic Industry Association defines bipolastics as “partially or fully biobased and/or biodegradable.”
What is plant-based plastic?
According to that definition, plant-based plastic is simply a type of bioplastic, since it is biobased.
The plant-based plastic is made from – you guessed it! – agricultural pieces (most often, corn or wheat).
Is plant-based the same as biodegradable plastic?
Plant-based plastic and biodegradable plastic are not exactly the same things. Plant-based plastic is made of organic matter.
Often, this includes corn, wheat, or sugarcane.
Biodegradable plastics are any plastics that can break down by natural organisms, although they are sometimes plant-based.
These are meant to act as an alternative to typical plastic that never breaks down into the environment.
However, there has been debate over whether or not bioplastics actually are better than petroleum-based plastics, since they are often not put in the correct conditions to break down properly.
How are biodegradable plastics made?
Biodegradable plastics can be made by using sugar cane or other organic materials in the production process, like plant-based plastic.
This creates plastic that is more renewable and sustainable than regular production methods.
Or, biodegradable plastics can be made with extra chemicals that allow them to break down easily when exposed to sun or oxygen.
Why is biodegradable plastic bad?
Biodegradable plastic sounds great in theory but it is not the perfect solution.
When biodegradable plastic breaks down in landfills, it can release methane or other harmful greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
Oftentimes, biodegradable plastics need specific conditions in order to break down.
If they end up in a landfill, they may take several years to even begin to degrade, barely an improvement on typical plastic.
Why is plant-based or bioplastic bad?
The term “bioplastic” has contributed to greenwashing.
Although soda and water companies are making an effort by switching to bioplastic, the wording tends to give a lot more credit than they deserve.
Even bioplastics are single-use and don’t completely disappear into the environment as we would hope.
What are the pros and cons of biodegradable plastics?
Here are some of the pros of biodegradable plastics:
- Made from organic materials
- Require less energy to make than normal plastic
- Less emission than normal plastic
- Can eventually break down over time
Here are some of the cons of biodegradable plastics:
- Often not disposed of properly, thus contributing to the global waste crisis
- Potentially could be contaminated with pesticides from the organic material growth
- Often considered the “perfect” solution, leading to misinformation on recycling
Is bioplastic eco-friendly?
Bioplastics look and feel similar to normal plastics, with the added benefit of having some sustainable materials that break down easier.
Sounds perfect, right?
Not exactly. While bioplastics are made from raw materials, they do not completely degrade in landfills and can contaminate local recycling streams.
Unfortunately, these are two of the places where they often end up.
We have also learned that only 20% of ingredients need to be labeled as “organic” to get the plant-based plastic designation, which leaves most of the product made up on non-biodegradable materials.
Is plant-based plastic better?
Plant-based plastic or “bioplastic” is often considered better than biodegradable plastics since it is created from natural and renewable materials.
The process can save energy and resources in production, and emit less harmful gases into the atmosphere.
Below, we will look at some of the pros and cons of plant-based plastic.
What are the pros and cons of plant-based plastics?
Here are some of the pros of plant-based plastics:
- Require less energy in production
- Can help use resources
- Reduces carbon footprint
- Can recycle more of our resources without creating more waste
Here are some of the cons of plant-based plastics:
- Often cost more than regular petroleum-based plastic production
- Can have a shorter use-cycle than typical plastics
- Require specific disposal methods to properly decompose
- Can impact food production
- Plant-based plastic and biodegradable plastic are not the same things.
- Plant-based plastic is made from plant materials, while biodegradable plastic may not be.
- Although plant-based plastic and biodegradable plastic have their pros and cons, both are sustainable alternatives to typical plastic production.
- Plant-based plastic or “bioplastic” is typically considered better for the environment than biodegradable plastic.
The best answer here is to be cautious of your recycling and disposal habits, research your local municipalities recycling and composting rules, and reduce your plastic consumption — biodegradable, plant-based, or not — all together!