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Advantages and Disadvantages of Bioplastics

Mark Jeantheau -- What are the advantages of bioplastics? What are the disadvantages of bioplastics? Are there standards bioplastic products have to meet? How can one find or buy bioplastic utensils (forks, spoons, knives), plates, bowls, and containers?

The place setting in Barbie's playhouse just got bioplastic surgery

Diamonds are said to be "forever" -- or at least until you have to fight for them in a divorce proceeding you ended up in because you both spent more time worrying about expensive gifts than each other's true needs, like which TV programs have priority.

Plastic, on the other hand, is truly forever, at least on any time scale that is meaningful to us and future generations. It breaks down excruciatingly slowly. In the meantime, plastic litter creates an eyesore and plastic waste in the ocean kills sea creatures and contaminates the food chain. Yet plastic is an almost inescapable part of everyday modern living. What to do?

A new breed of plastic made from plants -- called bioplastic -- are biodegradable, apparently offering a solution to one of the big problems with our disposable plastic society. But how true are these claims? Is "biodegradable plastic" just a myth? Our guest article today, from the Union of Concerned Scientists, gives a quick summary of the advantages and disadvantages of bioplastics, especially as they pertain to plastic silverware, plates, bowls, and bags.

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Do Bioplastics Deserve a Seat at Your Table?
by the Union of Concerned Scientists

Unlike typical plastics made from crude oil, "bioplastics" are often made from plant matter such as corn starch, potato starch, cane sugar, and soy protein. A potentially renewable alternative to petroleum-based plastics would have the long-term benefits of reducing global warming pollution and our dependence on fossil fuels. But do bioplastics really fit the bill? As they become more ubiquitous -- in the form of grocery bags and disposable plates, food containers, and cutlery -- numerous concerns have been raised about their merits:

Bioplastics are designed to be composted, not recycled.

The plant-based material will actually contaminate the recycling process if not separated from conventional plastics such as soda bottles and milk jugs. Home composting may not be an option. Some bioplastics cannot be broken down by the bacteria in our backyards. Polyethylene (PE) made from cane sugar is one example of this. Only bioplastics that are fully biodegradable will break down in a home compost pile, and it could still take up to two years for certain items (e.g., forks and spoons). The rest require the high heat and humidity of an industrial composting facility. There are only about 100 of those in the country, and not all accept bioplastic waste.

Plants grown for bioplastics have negative impacts of their own.

Bioplastics are often produced from genetically modified food crops such as corn, potatoes, and soybeans, a practice that carries a high risk of contaminating our food supply. Also, corn and soybean producers typically apply large amounts of chemical pesticides and fertilizers that pollute our air and water. To compound matters, the growth of the bioplastics and biofuels industries (both of which currently rely on food crops as their raw material) increases the demand for crops, puts pressure on food prices, and increases the impact of agriculture worldwide.

Environmental advocates are calling for bioplastic production based on renewable crops (such as native wild grasses) grown without chemicals. Bioplastics could also be developed from agricultural waste. Until then, what's a consumer to do?

1. Look for the "Compostable" logo. The Biodegradable Products Institute identifies products appropriate for municipal and commercial composting facilities. To find facilities in your state, see the Related Resources.

2. Opt for reusable or recycled instead. When you can't use metal cutlery or ceramic dishes -- which should always be the first choice -- look for recycled, dishwasher-safe plastic products that can be recycled once they are no longer usable.

The Union of Concerned Scientists is the leading science-based nonprofit working for a healthy environment and a safer world. An alliance of more than 250,000 citizens and scientists, UCS combines independent scientific research and citizen action to develop innovative, practical solutions and to secure responsible changes in government policy, corporate practices, and consumer choices. Visit them at www.ucsusa.org.

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Grinning Planet Wrap-Up

In situations where you feel you must use disposable plastic (instead of something washable), here's a key question: Do the advantages of bioplastics really outweigh the disadvantages of conventional plastics? By choosing bioplastics, are we merely supporting Big Ag instead of Big Oil? Both industries often employ odious, unsustainable practices. To us here at Grinning Planet, bioplastics made from GMO corn, soy, or potatoes are just as bad as plastics from petroleum.

The good news is that there is a bioplastic certification system, and products meeting the "Beyond Baseline Sustainability Criteria" are GMO-free (and have a number of other important green characteristics). Unfortunately, searches on the Web and Amazon.com did not turn up any products with such labeling.

We did find some products on Amazon that claim to be GMO-free (or have a description that implies it) and that have other preferable characteristics:

-- StalkMarket brand stuff, which includes bioplastic utensils, as well as plates, bowls, and take-out containers (from biodegradable sugar-cane waste)

-- RSVP International 1.5-gal Biodegradable Plastic Bags, 50-ct (GMO-free)

-- Biodegradable Recyclable 13-gal Tall Kitchen Trash Bags, Bulk Wholesale (144 bags) (from GMO-free corn)

In terms of life-cycle costs and environmental friendliness, you can't beat reusables -- durable, washable utensils made of stainless steel and plates/bowls made of ceramic, glass, or porcelain. But if circumstances dictate that you must go plastic, choosing super-green bioplastics like those above is preferable to standard petroleum-based plastics.

One final option: Preserve makes a number of disposable products from recycled plastic. At least the planet gets one additional use out of the stuff!

Resources:

-- Locate a composting facility in your area (from BioCycle magazine)

-- Find out about the "compostable" logo program (from the Biodegradable Products Institute)

-- See fact sheets on bioplastics (from the Sustainable Biomaterials Collaborative)

Mark is a writer, financial analyst, Web developer, environmentalist, and, as necessary, chef and janitor. Grinning Planet is an expression of Mark's enthusiasm for all things humorous and green, as well as a psychotic desire to work himself half-to-death. Hobbies include health foods, music, getting frustrated over politics, and occasionally lecturing the TV set on how uncreative it is. For jokes, cartoons, and more great environmental information, visit http://www.grinningplanet.com. If you're not already on it, you can sign up for our free mailing list so you don't miss anything.

© 2010 Mark Jeantheau

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