Industry Trends, Packaging Knowledge

What Is Bioplastic?

Adding Meaning to Terms like Biodegradable, Compostable, and Oxo-Degradable is Crucial For Understanding Bioplastics

Using “green” terms to describe products is a relatively new addition to the average person’s vocabulary, and unfortunately, they seem to be almost purposely confusing  due to some misdirection in the industry. Luckily, it is possible to clear up these terms, so that you can be aware when it is being used incorrectly.

What are Bioplastics Really?

The term “Bioplastic” currently has three different meanings. According to European Bioplastics’ definition, bioplastics must be:

1. Bio-Based, completely or partially made out of renewable materials like starch, but not necessarily biodegradable

2. Biodegradable, they can decompose naturally, but this term can be misleading as well (will be explained further into this article)

3. Both, the plastic is made out of a renewable resource and is also able to decompose naturally

There are technically a lot of bioplastics using the first definition, as plastic can be made out of almost any organic ingredient, thus making it “bio-based”. However, even if a plastic is made from a renewable resource doesn’t mean that it doesn’t hurt the environment (paper also has this pitfall). Bio-Based but non-biodegradable bioplastics still behave like any other plastic when they degrade, which is to say they take hundreds of years and break into smaller inedible microplastics.

What’s the Difference Between Biodegradable and Compostable Plastics?

Biodegradable refers to anything that breaks into small pieces so that microorganisms can consume, but there’s no official time limit set for it. Compostable plastics are a much different story. Unlike plastics that are just biodegradable, compostable plastics have to follow strict international industry standards such as EN 13432 and ASTM D6400, which give a specification for the biodegradation of any solid material to be composted in a given time (within 12 weeks). All compostable plastics are biodegradable, but not all biodegradable plastics are compostable.

Compostable plastics must be certified by a third party, and thus reputable companies will typically attest to the compostable nature of their bio-plastics, instead of simply using biodegradable. like the lavelshown below.

Compostable products should go to designated municipal composting facilities, where a high enough temperature is used to ensure it breaks down within the designated time. The International Airport of San Francisco is a good example of a place that operates the facilities for compostable plastics.

What are the Other Different Types of Degradable Plastics?

Although there are other types of degradable plastics (remember any plastic will technically degrade given enough time), these plastics are not considered bioplastics. They are typically regular plastics that contain additives to help them degrade over a period of time

Oxo-degradable plastics is what’s most often confused with bioplastics. However, they act just like regular plastics, which degrade by oxidation (hence the name) in an open environment given a very long time. Oxo-degradable plastics break into microplastics , which are difficult to clean up and potentially toxic, instead of natural products like carbon dioxide and humus.

Enzyme-degradable plastics are again conventional, non-biodegradable plastics that are enriched with organic additives. The degradation process is initiated by microorganisms and enzymes, which are supposed to consume the additives and the plastic in the process. It is meant to take longer to degrade than other bioplastics, however the plastic is said to disappear completely and be converted into carbon dioxide and water after some time. Unfortunately, it is still a new product, and thus there are not any publicly available studies, nor are there any industry standards for it to follow. Further time will prove whether they manage to establish themselves in the industry.

The Conclusion

Plastics are, for better or for worse, an integral part of our lives. Finding ways to turn it into something that can be environmentally sustainable is a difficult task, and the solution is different for every industry and purpose that it serves. As a consumer or as a company, the most important thing you can do is stay informed about the different products available, and decide what you need. Make sure you look at labels to ensure you know what you are buying, and check for certifications to make sure that you aren’t falling to fraudulent claims.

Torise’s products are all, without exception, made of certified compostable and biodegradable bioplastic. We also have plastics that are both bio-based and biodegradable, please see our products if you’d like to check (though most of our products are bio-based as well) or contact us, as we’d love to answer any questions.

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