In March, the Biden administration announced an effort aimed at tackling the plastic pollution crisis by replacing 90% of plastics with biomaterials. But the move is being described as short-sighted. Worse yet, it may even be more harmful for the environment in the long run.
A growing body of research suggests these seemingly eco-friendly alternatives to traditional plastic require huge amounts of land and water to produce. These resources might otherwise be put towards growing something other than your beverage and take-out containers, like food.
The word bioplastics doesn’t have a standardized definition. That means a lot of things get lumped together and slapped with a bioplastic label. For example, bio-based plastic refers to plastics that are not made from fossil fuel building blocks but instead from plant material, such as corn, sugar beets or potato starch. But these truly bio-based plastics only make up about 1% of all the plastics on the market. Most bioplastic products out there still contain some fossil fuel based plastic.
Compostable plastic on the other hand is engineered to fully decompose. The trick is, it will only decompose under certain conditions. In fact, only special industrial composting facilities can handle compostable plastic.
The key ingredients of bioplastics are corn, sugar beets or potatoes. These crops need to be grown and as this scientific study points out, because bioplastics require land and water, it can compete with food or fodder production. At a time when food security is affecting around 345 million people worldwide, there are big concerns about using precious arable land and water to grow plastic instead of food. It’s estimated that in order to meet the growing global demand for bioplastics, more than 3.4 million acres of land will be needed to grow the crops. That’s an area roughly the size of Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark combined. With more agricultural land being diverted to grow bioplastic, it’s possible the price of food could go up. That would hurt already inflation-stressed consumers and people who are already food insecure.
Not only this, but bioplastics contribute to global warming. Some biodegradable plastics can only degrade under certain conditions, and when they do decompose they produce methane – a greenhouse gas which is much more potent than carbon dioxide. Cultivating the crops used for bioplastics requires a great deal of fertilizer and pesticide. Adding to those pollutants are all the harsh chemicals needed to process organic material into plastic.
So while that bioplastic latte cup may seem on the surface like a greener choice, consumers should be wary. It might be better for our planet and our environment in the long run if we stick with growing food and not growing plastic.