Bioplastic vs. Recycled plastics in terms of sustainability

An abbreviation bio- is often understood as an ecological and green option, but what does it actually mean in context with plastics? What is bioplastics, is that the greenest choice available when it comes to sustainability?

plastic bottle on grass

Biodegradable & bio-based plastics - what they are all about?

The biodegradability of plastics in single-use products is sometimes considered as a solution to the littering problem caused by plastics. Bio-degradable plastics are plastics degraded by microorganisms under specified conditions. However, these plastics do not degrade easily under all conditions but degrade into harmful micro-plastics. In terms of the littering problem, it is to be noted too that more than 96% of waste is collected in Europe. Therefore we find it important to find the solutions for recyclable materials holding value rather than degrading fast.

Another newcomer to the plastic materials is bio-based plastics that are derived from biomass such as corn, sugarcane, cellulose or other renewable biological resources. It is sometimes stated that bio-based plastics save fossil resources and reduce a product’s carbon footprint, but yet another angle is the use of potential food crops, such as corn and sugar cane, as a raw material in a world where we still have malnutrition. Bio-based plastics are also produced from industrial waste streams that are a more sustainable alternative than virgin plastic. However, bio-based plastics do not always have the identical chemical and mechanical characteristics as the fossil-based alternative, which can cause problems for the recycling of the material and yet revoke the sustainability angle when not holding the value in the material.

Are bioplastics really better for the environment?

In all, bio-based and biodegradable plastics are interesting developments, but it is important that conventional fossil-based plastics are not replaced by environmentally poorer materials with respect to the whole life-cycle or by plastics which limit the possibilities for recycling of conventional plastics.

In a truly circular economy, materials that hold value and can be recycled are better than single-use materials. The environmental impact of different materials should be counted throughout the whole lifecycle.  Some bio-based plastic products have a bigger carbon footprint compared to fossil ones when the whole manufacturing chain and the life cycle is covered by calculations. Therefore it is wise to recycle all plastics that already exist and save the CO2 included in them, and only after that take virgin resources, both fossil and bio, into use.