Plastics Made From Plants

by Sam Lucas, Coastal Watch

It is important to understand the difference between compostable and biodegradable plastics to ensure they are processed correctly. Photo provided

Bioplastics, often referred to as bio-based plastics, are created from plants or other biological materials instead of petroleum. Most associate bioplastics with the terms “biodegradable” and “compostable”. Unfortunately, this cannot always be assumed. Bioplastics can be manufactured to be structurally identical to petroleum-based plastics, meaning that they will persist in the environment as long as petroleum-based plastics do.

Biodegradable plastics, under correct conditions, are broken down by microorganisms into natural compounds within one year. Compostable plastics are broken down into compost – water, carbon dioxide, biomass and other inorganic compounds. This process also occurs because of microorganisms, but heat and humidity play a large role. All compostable plastics are biodegradable, but not all biodegradable plastics are able to be composted.

Depending on the composition of bioplastic, it must be sent to a landfill, compost facility or recycled. Surprisingly, the majority of compostable bioplastic is not suited for home composting. Unless otherwise specified, it must be sent to an industrial or commercial composting facility. These facilities are able to heat the bioplastic to a high enough temperature, allowing microbes to break it down. Without this, the bioplastic will not break down in a short timeframe and will be comparative to the detrimental effects of traditional plastics if it enters the environment.

The chemical structure of bioplastics determines if it can be recycled along with petroleum-based plastics – some plastics are not compatible with one another. If discarded improperly, bioplastic can contaminate recycled plastic and potentially cause it to be rejected and discarded as trash. Please always review the product’s label to determine the proper method of disposal.

There are pros and cons to bioplastics and whether it is truly better for the environment than traditional plastics is still up for debate. We encourage you to refuse single-use plastics when possible and opt for reusable, environmentally friendly alternatives.

To learn more about bioplastics, visit: epa.gov/trash-free-waters/frequently-asked-questions-about-plastic-recycling-and-composting.

Part of the SCCF (Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation) Family, Coastal Watch creates and implements conservation initiatives that promote and improve the future of marine resources and, our coastal heritage. For more information about Coastal Watch, visit sancapcoastalwatch.org or contact coastalwatch@sanibelseaschool.org.

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