Bioplastics: An Alternative to Plastics?

Are Bioplastics an Alternative to Conventional Plastics?

We hear the word ‘Bioplastics’ being used a lot when we talk of an eco-friendly solution to plastics. But is that the case? Are Bioplastics a true alternative to plastics? Read to find out

By Sahabaj and Deepa

Since the 1950s, more than 9 billion tonnes of plastic have been produced globally and most of this lands up in the oceans. As a result, our oceans are filled with more than 165 million tonnes of plastic. At this rate, sea life and marine animals will soon be replaced by plastic items. 

Every year almost 200 million tonnes of conventional plastics are consumed globally. Moreover, these plastics account for the world’s third most finished petroleum-derived product. Plastic is a big problem and growing each day. National Geographic claimed that the carbon emission from fossil fuels was 37.1 billion tonnes in 2018 — a new world record.

With a glance around you, you can spot multiple plastic products. Plastic dominates glass, paper, wood, and metal as the most popular choice for packaging. It is efficient, cheap, lightweight, durable, and available in many shapes and colours.

This article on Future of Plastics brilliantly explains the Whats, Hows, and Whys of Plastic Dependency. But, why are we so dependent on plastic and what is the way out of our plastic crisis?

Bioplastics is a term that is starting to gain traction and often pitched as an eco-friendly alternative to conventional plastics. But, are Bioplastics the next best thing? Let’s find out.

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What are Bioplastics?

Bioplastics are made from renewable biomass resources such as vegetable oil and fat extracts, wood extracts, food waste, animal by-products, sugarcane, corn, seaweed, yeast, and other naturally occurring sources. They can also be made by directly processing natural biopolymers. 

Bioplastics reduce the usage of fossil fuels and can naturally degrade through biological processes. Conventional plastics however are made from fossil fuels and can take more than a thousand years to degrade. 

The first ever known bioplastic was discovered in 1926 by a French researcher named Maurice Lemoigne during his work with Bacillus Megaterium and was known as Polyhydroxybutyrate or PHB.

Lemoigne’s bioplastic remained unattended for several decades due to the abundant availability of petroleum. But it gradually gained recognition during the petroleum crisis of the mid-1970s. Further rise of molecular genetics at the beginning of the 21st century established bioplastics and their applications.

Bioplastics also have significantly low carbon footprints. Of course, the production and decomposition of bioplastics also require fossil fuels, but the amount is negligible compared to conventional plastics.

Different Types of Bioplastics

There are different types of eco-friendly plastic alternatives in the market. The two major categories are Biodegradable and Bio-compostable plastics. Although Biodegradable and Bio-compostable plastics sound the same, they have one significant difference. 

Biodegradable plastics degrade into naturally occurring matter under natural circumstances. They produce water, carbon dioxide and biomass when broken down by conditional composting.

On the other hand, bio-compostable plastics degrade under composting conditions and break down into microplastics or nanoparticles but are not as harmful as conventional microplastics.

Let us dig deeper and understand the different types of bioplastics.

Biodegradable Plastics

Biodegradation means a material can be wholly disintegrated into water, biomass and CO2. Biodegradable plastics require chemical assistance to initiate their degradation.

Due to toxic and misleading marketing culture, conventional petroleum-based plastics have also been marketed as biodegradable. The reason is that petroleum-based plastics also degrade and be one with nature. But the effective period is about a thousand years, which makes conventional plastics a pollutant. 

The use of biodegradable plastics is also harmful to the food chain. When degraded, biodegradable plastics move up the food chain and can result in chronic health issues.

We can categorise biodegradable plastics into oxo-biodegradable and hydro biodegradable.

Oxo-biodegradable plastics

They degrade due to oxidation — not into organic matter. So instead, the plastics disintegrate into something worse — smaller, untraceable microplastics. 

These plastics are made by adding fatty acid compounds of particular transition metals in minute amounts to conventional plastics. As a result, they degrade quicker when exposed to heat and light, releasing CO2 as the end product. 

Oxo-biodegradable plastics degrade without any biological mechanism, so they can’t be genuinely referred to as bioplastics. Instead, metal-oxide additives are used to break these plastics down quickly. 

When exposed to UV light, the oxo-biodegradable plastics disintegrate into microscopic particles known as nurdles. As a result, they have a 500-year environmental shelf life similar to traditional polymers.

Hydro-biodegradable plastics

They require hydrolysis to break down into smaller particles and simultaneously require biological activities (like composting) to degrade further. These plastics are produced using bio-based materials like corn, wheat, sugarcane, petroleum-based materials or a combination of the two.

Like oxo-biodegradable plastics, hydro-biodegradable plastics release CO2 as their end product along with methane but degrade quicker.

Bio-compostable Plastics

Bio-compostable plastics are non-toxic as they degrade into naturally occurring raw matter or biomass when provided with composting conditions. However, they require water, an environment, and bacteria to break down similarly to organic matter and degrade quickly. 

They are made from Polylactic acid (PLA), sourced from dextrose, a plant-based sugar. The production of PLA consumes 52% less energy than the production of petroleum-based plastic. Also, the production of PLA emits 80% fewer greenhouse gases than petroleum-based plastics.

When we talk about the compostable aspect, bio-compostable plastics are of three types: those that can be composed at home or in gardens, industrial compostable plastics and marine or ocean composting.

  1. Garden composting includes plastics which generally degrade in the home compost in 3 to 6 months or 8 to 12 months to turn into manure. 
  2. Industrial composting includes plastics that require controlled conditions available at composting industrial sites. For example, industrial composting plastics degrade under certain temperatures, under the influence of specific microbes or enzymes, conditioned lighting, etc.
  3. Marine or ocean composting includes plastics that degrade when put in marine ecosystems. Since these plastics are made from materials of the marine ecosystem like seaweed, they are dumped directly into oceans and seas to degrade. If they reach landfills, they won’t decompose however they take about 8 to 12 months to decompose in marine environments.

According to researchers, bio-composting plastics may not have enough barrier qualities ( that is, the absorption of light, water, or oxygen may be high), performance, or shelf life. That is why short-term use is allowed for the starch/PVA-based water-soluble bags available on the market.

How effective are Bioplastics compared to petroleum-based plastics?

The effectiveness of bioplastics can be understood by learning how they are produced, used and what happens to them after use.

Production of Bioplastics

Bioplastics are produced with sustainable raw materials, which reduce the use of petroleum and other fossil fuels. In addition, the production and degradation of bioplastics produce 80% fewer greenhouse gases than conventional plastics.

The lifespan of Bio-plastics

Even though bioplastics are considered eco-friendlier than conventional petroleum-based plastics, a study conducted by the University of Pittsburgh in 2010 stated otherwise. The study claimed that bioplastics were not nature-friendly when their lifecycle was considered.

According to the research, the fertilisers and pesticides used to produce the crops and the chemical processing required to convert organic material into plastic led to higher pollution levels during the creation of bioplastics. The metrics also revealed that bioplastics consumed a lot of lands and contributed more to ozone depletion than conventional plastics.

The hybrid plastic known as B-PET was determined to have the highest potential for hazardous effects on agriculture and ecosystems and to contain the most carcinogens. 

According to a 2017 study, switching to PLA made of corn instead of conventional plastic would reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 25%. The study also found that traditional plastic production utilising renewable energy sources might cut greenhouse gas emissions by 50 to 75 per cent. The study also suggested that future bioplastic production using renewable energy showed the most promise for significantly lowering greenhouse gas emissions.

End of Life of Bioplastics

A few Indian entrepreneurs claim that some water-soluble bags dissolve in water and solidify into plastic lumps. Therefore, people should be cautious of businesses that sell such plastics under the pretext of being “bioplastics.”

Some backyard-compostable plastics may not break down because the backyard/home compost may not have the right conditions. And, if left unattended, they won’t decompose in a landfill or the ocean.

Bio-compostable plastics are biodegradable (as they become one with nature). However, biodegradable plastics are not necessarily compostable (for instance, biodegradable and conventional plastics won’t decompose within a composting facility but will eventually biodegrade in a landfill after thousands of years). 

Biodegradable plastics require specific composting conditions and processing, catalysts, and compost (domestic or commercial) to degrade quickly. However, if left in landfills and mixed dump yards, they naturally decompose over time and at a specific temperature.

The starch-to-PLA-to-bags and some biodegradable plastics are often only degradable in industrial settings and must be processed in artificial composting facilities, which are scarce in India.

Waste Management of Bioplastics

If biodegradable plastics make it to composting facilities, they require high temperatures to degrade, and only a small number of cities have the equipment to handle them. Because of this, bioplastics frequently end up in landfills, where they may emit methane, a greenhouse gas 23 times more toxic than carbon dioxide when they are denied oxygen.

Apart from this, India’s ecosystem that oversees waste management is not robust. First, it’s difficult for laypeople to comprehend how to separate and treat those biodegradable plastics because there aren’t any explicit directions or labelling on them. If not appropriately segregated, the bioplastics can end up in a conventional plastic recycling facility and cause machines to break down or malfunction when they are accidentally processed. 

Clear and proper labelling of bioplastic bags can enable the consumers to discard them properly, so they end up in a composting unit along with the organic waste. However, for such ideal waste segregation to happen, a developing and populous nation like India has to have enough industrial bio-plastic waste processing facilities, and we are not yet there. 


The harms of plastic pollution are innumerable and lifelong. They do not decompose when dumped in landfills. Instead, they remain in the soil, making the land unsuitable for vegetation.

The production and degradation of plastic are harmful to everyone, including the earth. In addition, the production of plastic contributes to the existing abundance of greenhouse gases. Even decomposing plastic in any manner produces greenhouse gases. 

Bioplastics on the other hand degrade within around a year. Yet they may not be the next best alternative. The means and the ends don’t justify the production of bioplastics. It still continues to pollute the environment. Also the waste management ecosystem in India is not robust enough to process the bioplastic.  

We can still look at innovative sources like seaweed and agro waste to make bioplastics. It is essential to find a better alternative with a proper end-of-life solution. While the hunt for the next best alternative is still on, we as citizens can do two things.

One is to keep encouraging the government to find a solution and keep deploying stringent policies to curb use of toxic plastics. Two we as individuals need to be responsible for our own waste. Segregating our waste, ensure plastic recycling and switching to plastic-free alternative products are some ways in which we can help.

We can be apart of the solution and help eradicate plastic pollution! 

Conscious Charcha regularly brings you the best content around sustainable living. So subscribe to our blog and be the first one to receive new content straight in your inbox!

The article is co-authored by Sahabaj and Deepa Sai for ecoHQ.

Sahabaj is an SEO Expert and a writer. He loves to read, watch and visualise fiction. His shower thoughts are primarily about saving the planet from alien invasion, but lately, he is more concerned about protecting the Earth from humans. 

Deepa Sai is the founder of ecoHQ, a startup that consults for organisations in the Sustainability and Social Impact space. Hailing from a background in Psychology, Social Work, Human Resources, and Communications, Deepa believes in Creative Advocacy. She is also a music aficionado who consumes liberal amounts of coffee! 


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