If you had the choice between a regular plastic cup and a bio-plastic cup made from corn, tapioca, potatoes, or some other kind of bio mass, what would you choose as the most eco-friendly option? 

If you’re like most people, the plant plastic would probably sound very appealing and you’d assume it would be better for people and the planet, right? Trouble is, bioplastics are not always what they’re cracked up to be. 

A report from a plastic pollution research organization spells out the pitfalls of substituting petroleum-based plastic with the new bioplastics that are coming to market. The results, which may surprise you, make a strong case for continued lifestyle shifts toward reliance on reusable products, zero waste shopping, skipping plastic straws, bringing your own bags to the grocery store, and many other low-tech plastic avoidance alternatives.

Sadly, the report by 5 Gyres Research Institute finds that bioplastics in their current form cannot save us and should be avoided in favor of reusable plastic-free containers and lifestyle practices.

This is a guest post by our friends at ECOlunchbox, which is a great resource for non-toxic and plastic-free food storage!


Bioplastics Basics

Let’s start with a basic refresher from Sandra Ann Harris, author of “Say Goodbye To Plastic: A Survival Guide For Plastic-Free Living.”

What Are Bioplastics?

They’re billed as a biodegradable plastic substitute made from organic materials. This innovative technology offers up a lot of catchy buzzwords like “eco-friendly” and “biodegradable,” Harris explains, but the research shows once they end up in a dark compost bin away from prying eyes, they aren’t breaking down as advertised.

What Are Bioplastics Used For?

A mountain of trash is generated by consumers who buy food and beverages to-go. So when plant-based plastic came to market, it sounded like a great idea to use it for disposable food containers, cups, utensils, and other items meant to be thrown out after one use. After all, bioplastics are made from plants, right? So they can be put in the compost and turned back into dirt through biodegrading, right? It sounds good, but it’s far from the truth.

“Refusing to use plastics is the best idea. Bioplastics in their current form absolutely don’t live up to the hype,” Harris explains. “Choosing to use old fashioned plastic made out of petroleum is actually the better choice instead of plant-based plastics, because there are recycling systems in place to accept many regular plastics.”

Pictures Are Worth 1,000 Words: Images of Bioplastics (Not) Biodegrading

For its annual report, “Better Alternatives Now: B.A.N List 2.0,” 5 Gyres tested numerous bioplastics in real life situations. Scientists and consumers are increasingly concerned about plastic pollution and its negative effects on the environment. 

The researchers’ testing included suspending bioplastic cold cups, hot cups, straws and utensils in cages in ocean waters and burying them in the ground, because this is what happens in real life when these takeout service throwaways are thrown away.

Photos were taken of the bioplastic items as well as alternatives made from paper, bamboo, and other natural materials. The graphic below shows that the bioplastic items did not break down in the environment as promised even after many months.

limitations of bioplastics infographic
Image Credit: ECOlunchbox

What Does “Biodegradable” Even Mean?

Photos of the bioplastic items tested show that even after many months, it was easy to distinguish which items had been discarded. To be considered biodegradable, commonly accepted standards require items to decompose beyond visual recognition. While many brands claim to do this, 5 Gyres found that most items when left in nature for extended periods of time merely fragmented, which means breaking apart into smaller pieces. This does not qualify as biodegradation.

The labeling of these bioplastic products is often extremely vague and sometimes misleading leading many environmentalists to believe that compostable plastics are actually worse than petroleum plastics. Most commercial composting programs offering green bins with curbside pick-up for kitchen scraps and garden trimmings, for example, will not accept bioplastics because they can’t actually be processed with their grinding and heating treatments. The bioplastics contaminate the compost these facilities make from the green waste.

5 Gyres concluded that the best option for consumers is to adopt a plastic-free lifestyle as much as possible and choose products made from reusable/recyclable materials like stainless steel containers or fully compostable materials like bamboo, hay or paper straws and utensils

Furthermore, the researchers pointed out that bioplastics companies should be clearer in their testing standards and labeling. Plastic pollution could be reduced because users would know where to toss items—whether it’s the trash (which is the most likely destination for bioplastics) or the compost. While it’s possible to recycle bioplastics, the technology and collection systems are not in place so that consumers can access this option.

The solution is clear: choose to reuse! Rather than using plastic alternatives, replace single-use plastic and bioplastic with reusable containers made from non-toxic materials, utensils, cups, straws and other products as much as possible.

Thanks to your lighter trash print, you’ll rest easy on trash day knowing you’re doing your part to save the planet from plastic pollution. 

ECOlunchbox
Image Credit: ECOlunchbox

“There Is No Away”

5 Gyres worked with 10 organizations to create their BAN list 2.0. This included datasets from non-profit partners Heal the Bay and Clean Ocean Action, among others. This thorough report also identifies plastic products, plastic alternatives, and packaging that are most littered and harmful to our environment.

To make this information more readily available, 5 Gyres also teamed up with the app Litterati to share the top 5 brands identified for each item category. A favorite app with the ECOluncbox team, Litterati allows users to record data about litter and its removal.

The reports call for an end of all plastic and plastic alternative use, stating “Plastic—a material invented to last forever—can no longer be used to make products intended to be thrown away. There is no away.”