Biobased plastics or simply said “bioplastics” are the counterpart of synthetic plastics. Synthetic plastics (such as polyester) are made from petroleum whereas bioplastics find their origin in natural sources such as hemp, wood, coir, grasses, soybean and even milk! The most well-known bioplastic is called Polylactic Acid (PLA) and is often used for food packaging. Bioplastics can nowadays also be found in textiles; biotextiles.
The development of biobased plastics started in 2012. It was initiated by the so-called Bioplastic Feedstock Alliance (BFA) consisting of the world’s biggest consumer companies such as Coca-Cola, Nike, Heinz, and Unilever. Their goal was to raise awareness and lessen environmental impact. The entire development, however, is still in its infancy.
So originally, bioplastics are developed as a substitute for petroleum-based plastics. There are several reasons for this. First of all, because of the ever-increasing oil prices. Petroleum-based plastics are getting more and more expensive and bioplastics might form a cheaper alternative. Second, the use of bioplastics instead of synthetic plastics discourages the depletion of fossil fuels. And last, but not least, bioplastics seem to have a lower impact on our environment than plastics made from petroleum. Some say that biobased plastics are biodegradable, renewable and recyclable. However, this is still a very controversial subject which will be further elaborated under “processing”.
Plastics have always been highly valued because of their low costs and high level of versatility. The properties of biobased plastics are diverse because there are many different types of plastic and corresponding production processes. However, the general characteristics of bioplastics are light-weighted, flexible, elastic and heat sensitive.
Many different types of bioplastics exist and these are often more complicated than synthetic plastics. Besides, there are lots of different production processes. Therefore, it is almost impossible to claim that all biobased plastics are biodegradable, renewable and recyclable. The polymers used in biobased plastics are still synthetic; it is only the source which is natural. However, this natural source does not determine if the final material will be environmental friendly; it depends upon the used polymer.
So although the original, natural source might be biodegradable, the manner in which this source is turned into plastic is leading in this case and determines whether the material is easy to break down again. In general, these processes make it difficult to let materials biodegrade. Many bioplastics seem no more biodegradable than regular plastics. Another problem is that there is no general standard on biodegradability. Some plastics need special circumstances in order to biodegrade but only need a short period of time. Others can biodegrade in normal circumstances but need much longer to biodegrade. No general agreements are made on this subject so it is difficult to say what’s best for the environment.
Recycling is also a point of discussion. Again, there are so many different types of bioplastics that recycling facilities do not separate them from each other. The recycling process is in general very expensive since bioplastics can often not be recycled during regular processes. They often need special tools and facilities in order to recycle. Other, often heard disadvantages of biobased plastics is that it competes with the food industry and stimulates genetic engineering.
So there are still lots of issues which need to be solved before bioplastics can be labeled as an environmentally friendly, safe and good substitute for biofuels. In general, however, biobased plastics appear to actually save energy during the polymer production and produce fewer greenhouse gasses during the entire production process.
In 2014, Asia was the biggest producing country of bioplastics. Europe on the other hand showed to be the largest consumer market. An increase in the production of bioplastics is expected, especially in the textile industry.
Due to the increase in future production, it is expected that biobased plastics will become cheaper in the next coming years.