The focus of the BFA is on bio-based bioplastics,
and in particular on the feedstocks they are sourced from. An ideal biobased bioplastic would have all the valuable properties of conventional plastics, but would be sourced from renewable resources.
Such bioplastics are either be identical or very similar to a conventional plastic, and are not be easily identified as being different by sight. The difference – including the difference in environmental impacts – generally occurs at the beginning of the material life cycle.
Using renewable carbon to make a plastic has different impacts on our planet then using fossil carbon. Plastics and other materials derived from fossil resources are currently integral to our economy’s function, but our current reliance on oil, natural gas, and coal has serious and lasting consequences to both human health and the environment. Many of these impacts, like greenhouse gas emissions and resource depletion, are inherent to fossil resource extraction, and therefore unavoidable as long as we continue to depend on these materials. Biobased products represent an opportunity for positive change
, but they also have environmental impacts. However, it’s possible to mitigate these impacts through responsible sourcing.
Biobased ≠ Biodegradable
It is the chemical structure
of the plastic, and not the origin of the material that it is made from, that determines whether a material is biodegradable, compostable, or not
. Whereas biobased and biodegradable plastics both qualify under the term “Bioplastics” a bio-based PET is not biodegradable or compostable, whereas a PLA is. When existing plastics are produced using biobased feedstocks vs fossil based, they are called “drop-in bioplastics” because they can be substituted into the supply chain of an equivalent conventional plastic without any changes to the rest of the downstream system including end-of-life. This means that if the fossil-based PET used in a recyclable bottle is substituted with bio-based PET the bottle will remain as recyclable as it was before.
Biodegradable/compostable plastics such as PLA (polylactic acid) and PHA (polyhydroxy alkanoate) are not drop-ins; they have their own unique physical properties and in addition to this they may under specific conditions be broken down by micro-organisms into CO2 and new biomass.
Compostable plastics are not inherently less impactful to the environment. Many factors such the availability of compost or recycling facilities, the nature of the intended application, and the supply chain of the product, must be considered to determine the best material for a situation. Additionally, it is impossible to evaluate the sustainability of a material on its end of life performance alone. All stages of the lifecycle and their impacts must be accounted for in order to compare between materials.
Therefore, it is the overall impacts
of a bioplastic throughout its lifecycle that must be considered. End of Life impacts are a part of this evaluation, but should not alone dictate any course of action.