In this post, Why Science explores the promise and unintended environmental consequences of bioplastics. Bioplastics differ from petroleum-based plastics in that their feedstock is from renewable biomass rather than being oil-based. Although bioplastics with functionality comparable to non-biodegradable plastics can be produced on an industrial scale; they are more expensive than petroleum based plastics.
For most part of the the 20th century, petroleum based plastics have revolutionized our daily lives. Globally we use in excess of 260 million tons of plastic per year, accounting for about 8 percent of world oil production. In spite of recycling, most of this plastic ends up in our oceans. In the U.S. alone there are over 3,000 landfills nationwide overflowing with plastics that take centuries to degrade. With increased public awareness and concern about waste and energy issues, some have questioned whether plastics as an efficient use of energy and natural resources.
Would energy and natural resources be conserved if plastics packaging were replaced with bioplastics?
For several decades now, scientists have been working to find alternative ways to manufacture plastics and significantly reduce reliance on fossil feedstock (e.g., oil) and environmental pollution. Today, there are many outstanding challenges researchers face when developing fully biodegradable and sustainable products from newly discovered materials with the potential to replace existing petroleum based plastic products. What would life today be without plastics? These convenient, strong, energy-saving, safe and cheap petroleum based plastics exist because of years of research and innovation in manufacturing by scientists, engineers and technologists to meet ever growing human demand in our throw-away culture. We invite you to learn more about the promise and challenges of bioplastics by exploring the links below:
- Green Matter 2012 Predictions: Bioplastics no longer here today, gone tomorrow (Plastics Today)
- The Promise and Pitfalls of Bioplastics (Time)
- Bioplastics Not So Green (Discovery News)