The End of Life Environmental Impact of Bioplastics

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In the last installment of EcoSense, we looked at the end of life environmental impact of promotional pens, paying specific attention to plastic and bamboo. We examined how to properly recycle products made from these materials, and gave tips and tricks on ways to reuse plastic and bamboo pens to prolong their lifespan. Today, we’re moving on to bioplastics!

Whilst every step towards sustainability is indeed a positive one, some manufacturers claim the use of seemingly ‘green’ solutions which may not be quite as green as they seem… This can be seen with the increasing use of bioplastics: a plastic-like material fashioned from renewable biomass such as oils, vegetable fats, sawdust, recycled food waste and sometimes from used plastic bottles.

More and more industries are quick to utilise bioplastics in their own manufacturing processes, with the global bioplastic market projected to grow to almost $44 billion by 2022 (1). However, as with most new trends, we need to look to the future to confirm whether or not these new materials are in fact the real deal.

The green attributes…

The true “green” attributes of bioplastics mainly lay in their production, not necessarily in their entire life cycle.

  • Bioplastics manufacturing has a carbon footprint 75% lower than conventional plastics such as PET (plastic drinking bottles) and PS (fast food containers). In fact, substituting fossil-based polyethylene (PE) with bio-based PE would save more than 42 million tonnes of CO2 or 10 million plane flights around the world each year (2).
  • Bioplastics are generally made from plant raw materials such as corn starch instead of petroleum oil (a finite research) and are renewable.

And the not so green …

However, a study conducted by a group at the University of Pittsburgh found that, although bioplastics reduced the carbon footprint during production, they introduced greater amounts of other pollution such as pesticides and fertilisers into the environment (1).

Bioplastics also require extensive land use. In some cases, this land requirement results in deforestation (forest area still absorbs more CO2 than plants such as sugar and maize). A recorruring argument is that the land used for growing bioplastic crops could be put to better use growing food products (3).

When it comes to their end of life process, bioplastics are often championed for their biodegradable nature, with many manufacturers ensuring that products made from bioplastics are fully compostable. However, bioplastics require a specialised high-temperature compost environment in order to fully break down and will not biodegrade in commercial landfills or traditional compost bins. Many people simply do not have access to these facilities and may resort to disposing of their bioplastic waste in standard refuse or recycling points. Worse still, the misleading accolade of ‘fully compostable’ could lead people to discard bioplastic products such as pens directly into the environment, mistakenly believing that they will break down naturally.

Most bioplastics are disposed of in regular bins and will inevitably end up in landfills alongside the 6.3 billion metric tons of plastic waste we have accumulated globally since mass production of commercial plastics began – accounting for 79% of all landfill waste.  If bioplastic products are not disposed of in the correct manner and are placed in general plastic recycling facilities, their presence can contaminate any traditional plastics present and make those plastics unfit for recycling.


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Finding Other Uses for Your End-of-Life Bioplastic Products

Because bioplastics are not easily recycled, we recommend finding alternative uses for products that contain this material once they reach the end of their lifespan. Here’s a few fun and practical ideas to get the most use possible out of your bioplastic products!

Garden Markers – Poke your old, empty bioplastic pens directly into the ground to mark seedlings for a durable garden marker that will hold up in all weathers. As we know, there’s no risk of the pen decomposing in the ground!  

Plant Starter Sticks – Give your seedlings something to cling onto while they grow by removing the refill from your bioplastic pens and placing over the planted seed. Once growing starts, you can remove the pen to reveal strong and sturdy shoots!  

Fishing Lure – This is a great way to save money on costly fishing equipment! Simply empty the pen and add eyes and tail to mimic an insect. Then, watch as the fish jump on the line!  

Beads – Cut up old pens to make individual decorative beads. They can be painted and strung onto a piece of jewellery wire to create necklaces, bracelets and general craft items.  

Sprinkler Head – This is another great tip for our green-fingered readers. Pierce a plastic bottle and slot empty bioplastic pens into the holes, then attach a hose to the mouth of the bottle to distribute water around your garden.

In Summary

We’re all for seeking out new product innovations and eco-friendly materials in our quest to reduce our environmental impact. However, we also believe that, as manufacturers and consumers, we have a duty not to take everything we’re told on face value. When a new material enters the market claiming to boast a sustainable nature, we must conduct proper research to make sure those ‘green credentials’ check out.  

As we look in detail at the end of life impact of promotional products, it becomes more and more apparent that the key to establishing true sustainability lies with creating an effective circular economy (read more on this here) and by crafting products that are made to last.  

But how do we do this? 

With conscious product design, ethically sourced materials and regular assessments, we can create products that reject the throwaway culture of today and are instead built with longevity in mind. If and when a product does reach the end of its use, it’s important that the product can be recycled in the least energy-consuming way possible. Only then will we be able to use our natural resources in a continuous way without the worry of irreversibly depleting them.  

Extra Reading 

Interested in learning more about bioplastics and their end of life environmental impact? Here are some great articles which are perfect for brushing up on your knowledge!

What You Need to Know About Plant-Based Plastics

How Can the Environmental Impact of Bioplastics be Assessed?

Are Bioplastics Better for the Environment Than Conventional Plastics?

Bioplastics and Biodegradable Plastics

Bioplastic Recycling

References

  1. https://blogs.ei.columbia.edu/2017/12/13/the-truth-about-bioplastics/ 
  2. https://www.european-bioplastics.org/faq-items/do-bioplastic-have-a-lower-carbon-footprint-than-fossil-based-plastics-how-is-this-measured/ 
  3. https://phys.org/news/2018-12-bioplastics-necessarily-contribute-climate-mitigation.html

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