If you have ever encountered alternative packaging products that claim that they are not harmful to the environment, then it’s likely that you have come across bioplastics. Bioplastics are a new breed of plastic that begins to break down in the presence of heat and light.
Is bioplastic plastic? There has been plenty of confusion as of late about the true status of bioplastics or biodegradable plastics. Many manufacturers are claiming that they are now using environmentally safe materials for producing plastics. But who truly understands what these bioplastics are? We take a much closer look today to make more informed choices about the stuff you use.
What Are Bioplastics Made Of?
Bioplastic Vs Plastic
Plastics are made primarily from distillate derived from petroleum. They are not carbon-neutral, so it’s problematic if regular plastic was incinerated, which is one of the fastest ways to break them down.
Solid waste has steadily been increasing since the 1970s because of continuous plastic production, and it’s likely to continue if the plastic problem is not addressed properly.
Bioplastics are touted as one of the solutions that approach a permanent answer to the need for plastics. Bioplastics are simply a type of plastic manufactured, not from petroleum materials but corn and sugarcane.
Bioplastics are physically stable, and these materials perform all the jobs that are to be expected of conventional plastic.
What differentiates real bioplastics from all the other types of plastic is these materials can biodegrade over time. Some of these bioplastics can even be composted like garden or food waste, and under the right circumstances, they can be used instead of plastic to address the carbon question.
Types of bioplastics
Bioplastics made of starch-based bioplastics are so simple that they can be made at home with a bit of chemistry know-how. Starches are also widely used for making different types of biodegradable plastics. You can say that it is a staple form of bioplastic across the globe.
Cellulose bioplastics – As the name implies, this bioplastic is manufactured from plant cellulose. Esters are derived from cellulose, and the resulting substance is then combined with starch. The result is a polymer made entirely of plant-based materials. The difference between starch-based polymers and the ones that are boosted with cellulose is the latter’s enhanced durability.
Some bioplastics applications require more tensile strength or resistance to torque, and researchers are constantly figuring out how to make these biodegradable plastic products hardier and more resistant to damage.
Protein-based bioplastics – These bioplastics are derived from soy and other plant byproducts and materials. Protein-based bioplastics are also widely used globally.
Aliphatic bioplastics – Aliphatic bioplastics include variants like PA11, PLA, PHH, and PHV.
Polyethylene – This is a special kind of bioplastic that uses the fermentation process of different raw materials like sugarcane. The resulting organic polyethylene has the same durability and almost identical physical properties compared to conventional polyethylene.
Further research is currently being undertaken by universities and independent research facilities to use other kinds of organic matter to create bioplastics. For instance, microalgae are also being explored for possible use in the sustainable production of bioplastics.
Microalgae is a notable alternative to starches and sugar cane as they are naturally rich in polymers filled with proteins. To illustrate this point, take a look at Spirulina, which can have at last 46% protein content, which can also rise to 63% in some instances. Chlorella can also be used for this purpose.
What Are Biobased Plastics? What are bioplastics?
We can say that biobased plastics are a type of bioplastic as they are made at least partially from organic materials. Biobased plastics can be made either from cornstarch or ethylene that is then derived from sugarcane raw material.
Cornstarch is fascinating because it is the raw material for producing PLA or polylactic acid. What is confusing for regular consumers is that barely anyone knows about the differences between biobased plastics.
Some plastics are made from PVC and then mixed with biobased plastic. PET and PE plastics can also be combined with a certain percentage of biobased plastic to make the final product safer for the environment.
There are different types of biobased plastics as well. There is bio-PET, PLA, starch blends, and bio-PE. The great thing about these biobased products is that they can be used extensively in different industries and markets.
These materials are highly durable, resistant to heat, and wear-and-tear. Thus, they can even manufacture products for the automotive industry, the agricultural sector, and the textile industry, whether the final product requires fiber application or non-woven textiles.
Is Bioplastic Biodegradable? What are bioplastics made of?
Bioplastics are notable for reducing the overall solid waste that requires hundreds of years to decompose. One of the major problems with conventional plastic is it cannot decompose, even in the heat of the sun, and the fastest way to reduce it to its chemical components is through incineration. Plastic incineration does more harm than good, as plastic released not just carbon but also other noxious gases into the air, which are not healthy for humans.
If we were to look at the properties of bioplastics, we would see that, yes, it is biodegradable as these thermoplastics and bioplastics were designed to break down much more easily than conventional plastics.
In a proper facility, bioplastics will break down in a matter of months – say, three to six months at most. However, there is a big “what if” that determines whether this takes place or not. For example, it is a requirement that bioplastics be exposed to heat and sunlight for extended periods to trigger the weakening of the bioplastic’s chemical bonds, which essentially begins the process of biodegradation.
The chemical compounds released in the process of decomposing bioplastics are harmless to the environment, compared to the compounds released by plastics. The main byproduct of bioplastics is carbon dioxide or, simply, CO2. Since these plastics are plant-based, they are only going to expel CO2. The CO2 is just part of the material that was used to create these special polymers. Plants naturally lock in CO2 as they grow and develop.