Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Do Bioplastics Deserve a Seat at Your Table?

Do Bioplastics Deserve a Seat at Your Table?
March 2009
Read this issue of Greentips online

Unlike typical plastics made from crude oil, “bioplastics” are often made from plant matter such as corn starch, potato starch, cane sugar, and soy protein. A potentially renewable alternative to petroleum-based plastics would have the long-term benefits of reducing global warming pollution and our dependence on fossil fuels, but do bioplastics fit the bill? As they become more ubiquitous—in the form of grocery bags and disposable plates, food containers, and cutlery—numerous concerns have been raised about their true value:
Bioplastics are designed to be composted, not recycled. The plant-based material will actually contaminate the recycling process if not separated from conventional plastics such as soda bottles and milk jugs.

Home composting may not be an option. Some bioplastics cannot be broken down by the bacteria in our backyards; polyethylene (PE) made from cane sugar is one example. Only bioplastics that are fully biodegradable will break down in a home compost pile, and it could still take up to two years for certain items (e.g., forks and spoons). The rest require the high heat and humidity of an industrial composting plant—of which there are only about 100 in the country, and not all collect waste.

Plants grown for bioplastics have negative impacts of their own. Bioplastics are often produced from genetically modified food crops such as corn and soybeans, a practice that carries a high risk of contaminating our food supply. Also, corn and soybean producers typically apply large amounts of chemical pesticides and fertilizers that pollute our air and water. To compound matters, the growth of the bioplastics and biofuels industries (both of which currently rely on food crops as their raw material) increases the demand for crops and the impact of agriculture worldwide.

Environmental advocates are calling for bioplastic production based on renewable crops (such as native wild grasses) grown without chemicals. Bioplastics could also be developed from agricultural waste. Until then, what’s a consumer to do?
Look for the “Compostable” logo. The Biodegradable Products Institute identifies products appropriate for municipal and commercial composting facilities. To find facilities in your state, see the Related Resources.

Opt for reusable or recycled instead. When you can’t use metal cutlery or ceramic dishes, look for recycled, dishwasher-safe products that can be recycled once they’re no longer usable.

Related Resources

BioCycle Magazine—Find a composter
Biodegradable Products Institute—Compostable logo program
Sustainable Biomaterials Collaborative—Fact sheets
World Centric—Bioplastic categories and composting times

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