Bioplastics & Climate Change

By Adam Tarsky

Here’s the Problem: Climate Change is sweeping the world and ruining our homes. We as humans have lacked empathy, and been irresponsible. This has caused Global Warming, and detrimental damage. Globally, 310 million tons of plastic each year are produced. Almost all of it is petro-plastic, made from fossil fuels. 9 percent of plastics are recycled, with the rest being left to pollute the world. This plastic sits in landfills and takes 500 years to decompose, while leaching toxic chemicals into the ground. Additionally, 9 millions tons of plastic wash up on our shores, torturing marine creatures, and corals. This is not the way that the world should run, and this must be solved.

Solution: 90% of present day plastics could be derived from plants. Bioplastic refers to making plastic materials using renewable biomass sources, such as vegetable fats and oils, corn starch, straw, woodchips, sawdust, and recycled food waste. Bio-based plastics come from the earth, and are biodegradable, so they have lower carbon emissions. Bioplastics are currently used in disposable items like packaging, containers, straws, bags and bottles, and in non-disposable carpet, plastic piping, phone casings, 3D printing, car insulation and medical implants. The global bioplastic market is projected to grow from $17 billion this year to almost $44 billion in 2022. Now let’s talk about the types of bioplastic. There are 2 types of polylactic acid. The first one is typically made from the sugars in corn starch. It is carbon-neutral and edible. To transform corn into plastic, corn kernels are immersed in sulfur dioxide and hot water, where its components break down into starch, protein, and fiber. PHA is the second type of bioplastic, and is made by microorganisms, sometimes genetically engineered, that produce plastic from organic materials. The microbes are deprived of nutrients like nitrogen, oxygen and phosphorus, but given the high levels of carbon. What affords plastics their malleability are chainlike polymers. Potatoes, sugarcane, tree bark, algae, and shrimp all contain these same polymers, and can be converted to plastic.

Pros: Plant raw materials are renewable and sustainable unlike oil which is a limited and finite resource.

The carbon footprint of manufacturing bioplastics is 75% lower than that of PET and PS alternatives. Therefore, their manufacture is kinder to the environment.
Bioplastics are non-toxic and won’t leach chemicals into food. According to a study conducted by The National Center for Biotechnology Information in America; plastics (including BPA free plastics) leach estrogen-like chemicals into food.

Cons: Bioplastics won’t biodegrade in a landfill.

Bioplastics contaminate plastic recycling streams. This study ( compared seven traditional plastics, four bioplastics and one made from both fossil fuel and renewable sources. The researchers determined that bioplastics production resulted in greater amounts of pollutants, due to fertilizers and pesticides used in growing the crops and the chemical processing needed to turn organic material into plastic. The bioplastics also contributed more to ozone depletion than the traditional plastics, and required extensive land use. B-PET, the hybrid plastic, was found to have the highest potential for toxic effects on ecosystems and the most carcinogens, and scored the worst in the life cycle analysis because it combined the negative impacts of both agriculture and chemical processing.

A study done by the University of Pittsburgh about Sustainability Metrics on May 13, 2010

Is it worth it?

When we weigh the pros and cons we see that bioplastic has both good aspects and bad aspects. Considering that Climate Change is an extremely pressing matter, we must understand that we must try anything and everything to solve the problem before it gets out of hand. Under this perspective, bio plastic is worth it, due to the fact that it is economically efficient, and the pros outweigh the cons. Bioplastic has a very bright future, and for the reasons stated above, bioplastic could be a major player in fixing and reducing Co2 emissions. So, yes it is worth it, and must be instantly admitted and attempted into plastic factories. We must shut down over 50% of plastic, and convert it to biomass, to get the results we need, and fix this climate change epidemic once and for all.