Plastics pollute across every stage of their lifecycle – beginning with the fossil fuels used for their production and often ending in landfills or the ocean. However, plastic is also an essential material – with a wide range of applications; from protective equipment to water purification and medical components. ‘Bioplastics’ have emerged as a green alternative, but questions remain as to their true potential to accelerate the transition to a more sustainable economy.
Bioplastics are defined as a plastic that are either bio-based, biodegradable, or both – with several plastics falling in or between these categories. As the name suggests, bioplastics are created from biological materials, including polylactic acids, found in plants such as corn, sugarcane, and wood, or polyhydroxyalkanoates, which are engineered from microorganisms. Bioplastics are viewed as a more sustainable alternative to traditional plastics, primarily as they can be produced locally with little to no fossil fuels. Considering that some 98% of single-use plastics are produced from fossil fuels, bioplastics have the potential to play a role in decarbonization efforts.
However, the benefits are not without trade-offs. Production costs could be as much as three times higher than traditional plastics, and with land and plant materials required to produce feedstock for bioplastics, widespread production could increase water stress and food insecurity.
Despite these challenges, the global bioplastics market is growing, with global bioplastic production capacities is set reach 6.3 million tons by 2027.
New innovations, including biotechnological processes aimed at creating bioplastics from non-edible by-products resulting from the production of food crops such as straw, corn stover or bagasse could help improve cost efficiencies and alleviate resource strain – further accelerating the sector’s growth.