What are bioplastics and where are they used?
Bioplastics are biodegradable plastics. They will typically break down completely in three to six months whereas regular plastics can take up to 1000 years to break down to the same extent. Biodegradable plastics could play a key role in helping to solve the problem of plastic wasted. Here, plastic manufacturing specialist Ansini provide a quick guide to what you need to know.
Understanding the basics of plastics
There are now so many different kinds of plastics around that it can be very easy to get confused by them. Plastics are just materials which are made out of some kind of polymer. A polymer is just a material made up of particularly large molecules. These large molecules are, in turn, made up of lots of smaller molecules known as monomers.
Synthetic plastics tend to be made from petroleum. Bioplastics are made from natural materials but they may not be biodegradable. Synthetic plastics can, however, often be reused and some can be recycled.
Compostable plastics are plastics which can be broken down under certain conditions. These conditions, however, may not be easy to create. Biodegradable plastic is plastic which breaks down easily under standard conditions.
Manufacturing biodegradable plastics
In principle, both compostable and biodegradable plastics can be made from either synthetic or natural materials. In practice, biodegradable plastics tend to be made of natural materials. This is often a large part of what makes them biodegradable.
On the one hand, reducing the world’s reliance on petroleum has obvious benefits. On the other hand, using arable land to create industrial raw materials (rather than food) does pose clear challenges.
Pressure on growing space can lead to producers becoming reliant on chemical products to increase production. These chemicals may not only alter the balance of the soil where the raw materials are grown. They may also affect the soil where the end product decomposes.
Advantages and disadvantages of biodegradable plastics
The main advantage of biodegradable plastics is, of course, a reduction in plastic waste. It is, however, worth noting that, currently, biodegradable plastics only break down on land. If they end up in the water supply, therefore, they will cause the same problems as regular plastics. Also, if they fail to break down completely, they can be harder to find and hence remove.
Furthermore, the very nature of biodegradable plastics means that they’re only suitable for single, or at best, very short-term use. This is still far from ideal from the point of view of sustainability. The environmental cost of producing and disposing of biodegradable plastics is lower than for synthetic plastics. It is, however, still a clear cost.
Uses for biodegradable plastics
Overall, therefore, it seems like the best way to use biodegradable plastics is to keep them for situations where it’s effectively mandatory to use single-use materials. The obvious example of this is in medicine. There are, however, other sectors where biodegradable plastics could potentially be very useful.
For example, while the food industry in general is trying to limit plastic packaging, there are some areas where there are no real alternatives. For example, if you are transporting food products known to cause allergies (e.g. peanuts), plastic wrapping is currently the safest option.
Biodegradable plastic could also be useful in agriculture, horticulture and even regular gardening. For example, it could be used to create biodegradable plant pots. These would allow seedlings to be planted straight into soil without the shock of transplanting.