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The Truth About Bio-Plastics

Wheat straw, rice husk, bamboo fibre, corn starch - are they really an eco-friendly alternative?

Let’s cut to the chase… since launching Planting & Prosper 10 months ago, I have spoken with numerous different manufacturers about producing products made from bioplastics, i.e. toothbrushes, coffee cups etc. To my surprise, I learned that up to 50% of the material was petroleum-based plastic! That REALLY shocked me. There are so many products out there being sold as a solution to the plastic problem, but in reality, they are far from it. Let’s start at the beginning...

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Plastic pollution – one of the most pressing environmental threats we are facing. In recent years, we’ve gotten so used to the perceived convenience of plastic that we forgot about the impacts our choices have on the world around us.

While we are all becoming more eco-conscious (due to it becoming harder and harder to ignore the scientific research screaming ‘stop using plastic’), we still have to live with the reality of an age of plastic. Most products at the supermarket are packaged in it. It sits in every room of our house, and even in our closet in the form of synthetic clothing.

Of all 8 trillion tons of plastic produced to date, only 9% was recycled. We are sending 18 billion pounds of plastic into our oceans every year. All this plastic never truly decomposes, with much of it only falling apart into microscopic plastic particles which keep polluting our environment indefinitely. It’s also finding its way back into our homes: in tap water, sea salt or seafood. Some researchers believe the average person consumes 5 grams of plastic per week, and 20kg over a lifetime!

plastic pollution

It goes without saying that we need to put an end to this plastic obsession – but how do we go about doing that?

One alternative to conventional purely petroleum-based plastic are bioplastics. With a promise to be the resolution to plastic pollution, how sustainable are these alternatives, really?

The types of bioplastics

The term bioplastics refers to plastics made from biological material (most commonly plants). It can be used to describe two types of alternative plastics:

  • Bio-based plastics: these are made partially from biological material but aren’t necessarily biodegradable and can often contain quite a substantial share of regular petroleum-based plastics.
  • Biodegradable plastics: plastics made wholly from plants which will, given certain conditions, biodegrade to become one with the earth and leave nothing behind – in short, they are compostable.

What is confusing to say the least, is that both of these are labelled with the broad term ‘bioplastics’, making it hard for us to distinguish which type of bioplastics we are dealing with and whether it’s actually plastic-free.

bioplastic plastic pollution

Are bioplastics a solution?

One of the benefits of bioplastics is that they often use agricultural waste which would have otherwise been burnt or disposed of as waste – such as wheat straw. Using these materials instead could also help reduce our reliance on oil, which is another issue associated with plastic pollution, as currently 8% of the world’s oil is used to make plastic. However, plants grown for bioplastics are also often treated with petroleum-based fertilisers, and we can’t forget that some bioplastics aren’t made from waste, but edible parts of plants which could otherwise be used as a food source. Given that about 8.9% of the world’s population — 690 million people — go to bed on an empty stomach each night, this morally doesn’t sit right with me.

wheat straw bioplastic

As mentioned before, a lot of bioplastics aren’t purely plant-based and contain some form of plastic – most commonly PP or melamine. One product which I see a lot of is Wheat Straw Toothbrushes. Personally, I have been told by numerous different manufacturers that creating a toothbrush from 100% wheat straw is not possible as the material alone is not strong enough, so PP needs to be added. Because of that, the bioplastic can’t be recycled as the materials can’t be separated, and they can’t be composted due to containing common plastic.

Often, labels stating a product is biodegradable can be deceiving, because all that the term ‘biodegradable’ means is that the material will, after some time, break down into smaller particles – this is true even for petroleum-based plastic! For a product to biodegrade in a way that doesn’t leave anything behind, becoming one with the earth, it needs to be compostable. To find out more about this, check out our article on the difference between biodegradable and compostable materials!

How to have a positive impact?

bioplastic wheat straw plastic

Knowing about these impacts, how do we make a true difference? We all have different goals and are at different points on our sustainability journey, which is why it’s important to take it one decision at a time. Here are some factors you may want to consider when doing so:

  • If buying bioplastics, choose ones certified as 100% biobased by the USDA. This means that it comes purely from biological sources.
  • Look for a certification of the product being home compostable or commercially compostable. Home compostable products can be added to your at-home compost, whereas commercially compostable items need the enhanced conditions of an industrial composting facility.
  • Search for recyclable materials which don’t lose quality in the process and have a high recycling rate. Glass and aluminium are some of the best. Plastic can only be recycled a few times as it quickly loses quality, whereas aluminium and glass are infinitely recyclable, i.e. can be recycled again and again and again. 
  • Do your research about the brand you’re buying from and make sure they’re being transparent about the materials they are using.

A large portion of the bioplastics you’ll find aren’t truly plastic-free and usually don’t help tackle plastic pollution as much as they seem to. We recommend that you always choose products which are 100% natural material instead of plastic based bioplastics whenever possible. Or a material which is infinitely recyclable. For example, instead of a bioplastics-based wheat straw toothbrush (which usually contains plastic), choose a bamboo toothbrush which has a 100% compostable handle and is plastic-free. If you’re choosing products based on their end-of-life and minimising your waste... home compostable products, with zero plastic, win by far!

Please feel free to drop me a DM on Instagram if you have any questions on any of the above!

truth about bioplastics