As eco-friendly products are becoming more than just a fad, the search for better plastics has become a paramount concern.
Plastics are tough and durable, making them versatile for broad applications. Ironically, these same qualities are also the drawbacks why plastic wastes are hard to manage. Plastics don’t mix well with other materials, and they are a common cause of pollution. With plastics littering our lands and polluting our waters, there is even a mounting call that plastics be treated like other items covered by hazardous waste disposal programs.
The fact that plastics are made from non-renewable petroleum also doesn’t help their cause as well. Thus, there is a growing demand for eco-friendly plastics. Currently, we have bioplastics, biodegradable plastics, and recycled plastics.
As opposed to the traditional kind, bioplastics come from natural, renewable sources like vegetable oil, cornstarch, pea starch and orange rinds. The premise here is that: if plastics were obtained through natural means, then it would be easy to break them down.
True enough, bioplastics can be degraded relatively quick; some even taking just a matter of weeks. Not only that, bioplastics are compostable and can be mixed with soil without causing any harm.
One example is Poly Lactic Acid or PLA from cornstarch. PLA-based plastics is now used as a material for shopping bags and food containers, and their sturdiness is somewhat comparable to the more familiar products based on polyethylene (PE) or polypropylene (PP).
While the technology and application of bioplastics are still at an early stage, what drives people to take notice is how traditional plastics get replaced with natural alternatives without significant reduction in quality.
Bioplastics are not the same as biodegradable plastics; while both contain the “bio” prefix, these two mean two different things. Not all bioplastics are degraded in the same manner as biodegradable plastics. It is, therefore, more apt to call bioplastics as “bio-derived plastics” to avoid the confusion.
You may already have noticed plastic items in the grocery with a “biodegradable” label. Biodegradable plastics belong to the class of traditional, petroleum-based plastics we are accustomed to, but they are designed to decay more rapidly.
One way to achieve this is to incorporate additives into the chemical structures of these plastics so they can be initially broken down by UV radiation or oxidation. Once the materials are broken down into smaller molecules, bacteria and other microbes can now start their work. That’s why it’s common to find biodegradable plastics also labeled as “photodegradable” or “oxo-degradable”.
Technically, all plastics can be broken down by bacteria. However, for decomposition to happen fast and efficiently, it takes highly-favorable and tightly-controlled conditions. Different types of plastics have different degradation rates, and it is not uncommon to hear plastics take decades or centuries to decay completely. (The tough ones can even last for 500 years.)
The truly biodegradable ones can undergo rapid decompositions in both aerobic (compost pits) and anaerobic (landfills) conditions. But not all biodegradable plastics break down into harmless substances. Some leave behind toxic residues which make them a no-no for compost purposes.
While bioplastics and biodegradable plastics are sustainable alternatives, adapting to them is not that easy for the following reasons:
For now, recycling appears to be the most convenient solution to the issue of plastic disposal. Old plastic materials such as milk bottles are recycled with new ones like clothing items. This way, it does not only curb pollution brought by plastic wastes, but it also reduces the impact brought by dwindling petroleum resources.
Yes, eco-friendly plastics are real. You now have the choice to forego of the old plastics and go with the new ones without worrying about any compromised quality. You can still use plastics and at the same time, be friendly with the environment.