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Bioplastics: Plant or Plastic?

Updated: Oct 19, 2021

Plastics comprise a majority of consumer products, with one-third of plastics used for packaging in 2015, which has been invading natural environments. So how do we keep the practical qualities of plastic but make it less harmful to the environment? One proposed solution is bioplastics.

Bioplastics can reduce fossil fuel as a source for plastic and attempt to make a dent in the oil-based plastic production we have today. Plant-based plastics are an attractive pathway since government action and policy on changing plastic supply chains can take time to develop and implement.

Despite bioplastics’ pursuit of reducing fossil fuel demand, replacing plastic with a plant-based source is not as environmentally beneficial as previously intended.

Breakdown of Bioplastics

What are bioplastics exactly? Project Drawdown’s definition of bioplastics is plastics that utilize plants as an alternative source of carbon, and they often have lower emissions and sometimes biodegrade. These products look and feel like plastic but are made from renewable carbon resources such as corn, starch, potatoes, sugarcane, etc.

The main advantage of using plants as the plastic source is the ability to sequester carbon during their growth. Also, utilizing waste biomass, like bagasse, is especially beneficial since these vegetal sources are not interfering with other productive use such as food crops.

Where it gets tricky is how the plant source is transformed into “plastic.” The plant-based plastic’s chemical structure is actually identical to petroleum-based plastic, which can compromise its ability to biodegrade. Also, not all products are 100% bioplastic and are mixed with fossil fuel plastics, making it difficult to sort and recycle at its end-of-life.

The variety of bioplastics can confuse consumers as many different plant-based single-use products ar