Guidelines for Sustainable Bioplastics

Problem Statement

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Fossil-fuel-derived plastics are non-renewable, often threaten public health, have devastating impacts on marine life, and increase reliance on imported fossil-fuel-based feedstocks. Overall recycling of fossil-fuel-based plastics remains at a very low level. Virgin fossil-fuel-based plastics inevitably must be entirely replaced with sustainable, biobased, renewable materials.

The development of bioplastics holds great promise to mitigate many of these sustainability problems, offering the potential of renewability, biodegradation, and a path away from harmful additives. They are not, however, an automatic panacea. Modern industrial agriculture creates a host of health, environmental, and social and economic justice issues including the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the field, toxic pesticides, high fossil fuel energy use, and destruction of family farms. Increased demand for agricultural products for energy and materials may well exacerbate problems posed by modern agriculture while increasing pressure on ecologically sensitive land and raising food security concerns.

Manufacture, use and discard of products made from bioplastics can also result in hazardous emissions, particularly if the bioplastic is mixed with fossil-fuel-based chemicals. While many bioplastic products are certified compostable, challenges remain to develop the education and outreach, the collection services, and the composting infrastructure to ensure products are actually composted at the end of their intended use. At the same time, some bioplastic products may be recyclable but similarly lack the necessary infrastructure, while posing concerns for existing recycling systems.

Bioplastics must be developed with clear sustainability goals and guideposts to avoid the pitfalls and realize the promise of this technology. Additionally, the current excessive consumption of materials and products will overburden the earth’s capacity, whether the materials are fossil-fuel-based or biobased in origin. Reduced consumption, more efficient product design and applications, and shifts from disposables to reusables will be critical to achieving sustainability.