Why are biodegradable plastics expensive

Bioplastics - How sustainable is the plastic alternative really?

We live in times in which we are confronted with the consequences of our plastic consumption everywhere - fields, meadows, rivers and seas full of plastic waste that will not break down by itself in the next few centuries. Solutions are needed!

For many companies and private individuals, bioplastics seem to be a real alternative to conventional plastic.

A few weeks ago, in our article "Plastic in tea bags - manufacturers answer our questions", we noticed that many tea manufacturers pack their tea in bioplastic bags.

Our favorite sustainable café also offers to go cups made of bioplastic and there are now bin liners made of bioplastic for the organic waste bin.

But what exactly is bioplastic? What is the difference to normal plastic? What are its benefits for the environment, especially when compared to conventional plastic? And is bioplastic really as sustainable and environmentally friendly as we think or as companies suggest to us?

We have dealt a little more with the topic and got to the bottom of these questions. We share the most important and interesting findings with you in this article. Here we go…

Definition of bioplastic

As Bioplastic, Bioplastic or bio-based plastic are generally referred to as plastics that based on renewable raw materials to be produced. Must be biodegradable Not be given.

The most commonly used bioplastic today is PLA - short for "polylactid acid" - that is, lactic acid. This substance is obtained from starch and is based on sugar cane, corn or potatoes.

“Biodegradable plastics are used all over the world primarily as garbage bags for the collection of bio-waste, in agriculture, in horticulture, in textiles, in packaging, in the automotive industry or in short-lived consumer goods. The main uses are biodegradable starch, polylactide (PLA), polybutylene succinate (PBS), polybutylene adipate terephthalate (PBAT) and polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA). "(Source: Federal Environment Agency)

But Attention! Unfortunately, the term "bioplastic" not protected, so other plastics can also be referred to as "bioplastics". There are, for example, various "blends", i.e. mixtures of raw material and petroleum-based plastics.

According to the above definition, some materials are "bio-based", i.e. consist of renewable biological raw materials. Other materials are not bio-based, but only "biodegradable" (biodegradable). Both of these apply to some materials. But bio-based and biodegradable are two very different things.

"According to DIN EN 13432 means Biodegradabilitythat is a material after a specified time under defined temperature, oxygen and humidity conditions in the presence of microorganisms or fungi must have degraded more than 90 percent to water, carbon dioxide (CO2) and biomass. However, biodegradable plastics are not necessarily made from renewable vegetable or animal raw materials; there are also plastics made from fossil, non-renewable resources that are biodegradable. The Biodegradability is therefore not tied to the raw material basebut depends solely on the chemical structure of the material and its ability to convert into naturally occurring metabolic end products through biological activity. "(Source: Federal Environment Agency)

When talking about bioplastics, it is usually assumed that it is bio-based and biodegradable, but this is simply not always the case. Really biodegradable is actually only a small niche of the materials.

Are all bioplastics biodegradable?

As mentioned briefly, not all bioplastics are bio-based, and not all bio-based plastics are biodegradable (biodegradable). As the following graphic shows, only some of the bioplastics are both bio-based and biodegradable. The graphic also shows that biodegradable plastics do not necessarily have to consist of renewable raw materials, but can also be made from fossil raw materials.

The most common bioplastic "PLA" is also advertised as being biodegradable. This means that this bioplastic could officially be thrown into the bio bin and decompose there.

However, the decomposition only takes place under optimal conditions - that is, at the right temperature and the appropriate rotting time. Theoretically, these conditions should exist in industrial composting plants. Practical, but that's not the case.

As an employee of one of the largest Bavarian composting plants told us, cause bio-plastic bagsand supposedly “compostable” packaging (e.g. organic coffee capsules, bioplastic tea bags, as well as "compostable" disposable dishes, etc.) same problems as "real" plastic.

The degradation does not take place fast enough in the industrial composting plants either, and the material ends up in the finished compost as non-rotting "contaminants".

In order to remove these "contaminants", the compost has to be sieved very closely. A third of the valuable compost soil is also lost in the process. The workload and the loss due to the lost compost earth lead to the Bavarian company alone unnecessary costs of approx. € 350,000 per year.

Even if bioplastics are under optimal conditions If it were to be decomposed in the industrial composting plants, it would only end up with CO2 and water, and no valuable compost component how nutrients and minerals are created.

It is therefore It is not recommended to throw bioplastics in the bio bin! It is better to dispose of it in the residual wastel! You should remove your “real” organic waste from the organic waste bags before disposing of it in the organic waste bin, and dispose of the bioplastic bags in the residual waste. Or you can use paper bags straight away, or do without bags completely and collect organic waste in a bucket.

If bioplastics get into nature, they only have minor advantages over petroleum-based plastic. Because in nature there are also not the optimal conditions for decomposition (e.g. the decomposing enzymes and fungi are missing). The plastic remains in nature for a very long time. In the cold sea can Bioplastics "survive" years.

Here are a few figures of how long the different bioplastics need to decompose under different conditions:

Only a few bioplastics can really be disposed of in the garden compost. These products are then equipped with a specific certificate (see picture on the left), which confirms garden compostability.

As you can see: Just because a packaging or a product is made of bioplastics does not mean that it is suitable for garden compost. There are also certificates for industrial composting, but it is not recommended because the rotting times are too short.

Bioplastics - an old new trend

We previously thought that bioplastics was a new trend that has only recently developed due to the environmental situation. We were very wrong about that. Because Bioplastics were produced in the USA as early as 1870. At that time, cellulose-based thermoplastics were developed to replace ivory in the manufacture of billiard balls. As a result, eyeglass frames, toys, combs and other products were also made from celluloid. Around 1897 came then Galalith as a bioplastic, which from Milk protein was produced. Radio housings, for example, were then made from this. Nowadays, knitting needles, fountain pens and picks are still made from this material.

In the first half of the 20th century However, bioplastics got competition from petroleum-based plastics acrylic, polyamide and Polystyrene. Since the manufacture out cheap petroleum was cheaper, and became cheaper, the comparatively more expensive bioplastics were pushed out of the market. From 1950 Then came the manufacturing processes for the plastics that still dominate the market today Polyethylene and Polypropylene.

Due to the current environmental situation and rising oil prices, the demand for bioplastics is increasing again. But are bioplastics really better? As described above, there is only limited biodegradability. Are there still benefits for the environment?

Bioplastics - advantages and disadvantages

Advantages of bioplastics

  • Lowers the Consumption of fossil fuels compared to petroleum-based plastic
  • It arises less CO2 than in the production of petroleum-based plastics
  • Agricultural products such as starch or sugar are comparative to petroleum price stable

Disadvantages of bioplastics

  • Misleading term: the prefix “Organic” doesn't meanthat the raw materials used ecologically only that the end product is biodegradable or bio-based.
  • Fossil fuels such as oil and natural gas continue to be used, albeit less.
  • Cultivation areas for corn, sugar cane & Co. are currently used exclusively for bioplastics, and are therefore not particularly ecological (research is working on alternatives that are made from organic waste and leaves of corn)
  • Crops in the US and South America are common genetically modified
  • By growing the required raw materials, the Soils over-acidic (e.g. by pesticides)
  • Takes corn for bioplastics Growing area for food gone - even if there has not yet been any competition for space. The more bioplastic is produced with the current technology, the more cultivation area is required. A Competition for space could well exist in the future and have consequences for food prices and the existence of forests.
  • Bioplastics can be between 10 to 100 percent more expensive to be as the "oil product"
  • In terms of their properties, bioplastics do not always meet the requirements that petroleum-based plastics meet
  • Bioplastics can decompose only under optimal conditions, and even then only produce CO2 and water, and no valuable compost components such as nutrients, minerals or soil-improving humus.
  • Bioplastics leave contaminants in the compost and cause high costs in industrial composting plants

As you can see, bioplastics still seem to have some drawbacks, even though companies and savvy marketing give us the impression that bioplastics are much more sustainable and ecological than regular plastic. So we asked ourselves:

Can there really be any sustainable bioplastics at all?

Not only did we ask ourselves this question, but also the Federal Environment Agency. You write that a really sustainable bioplastic is one positive ecological balance according to DIN EN ISO 14040 and 14044. So far, however, no bioplastics manufacturer has carried out such a life cycle assessment or other studies that analyze the ecological effects of bioplastics.

Theoretically, according to the Federal Environment Agency, a really sustainable bioplastic with ecological superiority over conventional plastics should have the following properties:

  • The raw materials have to be made from sustainable, ecological agriculture come
  • It should be increased Residues from agricultural and food production
  • The products should reusable be
  • At the end of the product life cycle, a high-quality material or energy recovery occur

Unfortunately, these properties are currently not applicable to any bioplastic available on the market.

Sustainable alternatives to bioplastics - what can you do?

As always, it is best to completely avoid plastic products and their bioplastic alternatives, or to reduce consumption.

You can get through bioplastic cups reusable to go cups replace. You can use yoghurt, milk, tomato sauce, canned vegetables & Co. in Glass and Aluminum cans to buy. You can put plastic bags through Cotton bag Replace and garbage bags with Paper bags replace or form from recycled newsprint. You can read how to do this on Michelle's blog here.

You can read more ideas about avoiding plastic in our "10 Zero Waste Alternatives for Beginners" article.

In some areas, plastics will continue to be needed, e.g. for glasses frames, electrical appliances, cars & Co. Here you can try to reduce your consumption as much as possible or sometimes "Second hand" to buy.

Do you have any other ideas to reduce your plastic consumption? Let us know in the comments!

Our conclusion

In the course of our research it became increasingly clear to us that bioplastics are definitely better than petroleum-based plastics, but that there is still a lot of need for optimization.

It's really great that bioplastics decompose faster than petroleum-based plastics. Due to the lack of specifications, you as a consumer have to pay close attention to whether the products really are based on raw materials and whether they are biodegradable. This is extremely important for correct disposal!

In the future there will hopefully be bioplastics that are really more environmentally friendly - i.e. with raw materials from organic agriculture, possibly from residues of the food industry, which are biodegradable and have the same or similar good properties as conventional plastics. Only then will it be possible to increasingly replace fossil plastics with bioplastics. Not only in packaging, but also in the automotive industry, on electrical appliances & Co.

We would like manufacturers to continue to think about improving their products and, above all, to have clearer laws clearly stipulating the names and properties of bioplastics. Until then, companies should avoid greenwashing and clearly communicate on their products what the correct disposal should look like.

In general, we recommend - as described above under the "Sustainable alternatives to bioplastics" - to avoid plastic (whether organic or conventional) as much as possible. We are also trying more and more to reduce our consumption of plastics. But even in the fairlis household there are still garbage bags made of bioplastics, as we are not allowed to throw our organic waste loose in the garbage can (rented apartment).

In the best case scenario, at some point we will have our own compost that we can throw our organic waste on. 🙂

What are your thoughts on bioplastics? Meaningful development or not? Do you use certain bioplastic products?

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