For decades, the curse of the environment has been plastic goods created by our throwaway society and then… well, thrown away. That wouldn’t be so bad if it went into recycling bins, but billions of tons of plastic bags, bottles, packaging and bits and pieces litter our streets and fields, pollute the oceans and clog up landfill. Plus, of course, it takes centuries to degrade and many items are made of plastics that cannot currently or are not routinely recycled by local authorities.
The allied problem is that plastic is one of the most materials we have, and it’s not going to go away, by consumer demand. On the plus side, there may be an eco tech solution, in the form of new biodegradable and/or recyclable plastics made from organic materials, rather than non-renewable petrochemicals. These bioplastics are made from vegetable oils, fats, starches and cellulose. Allied products are made from polyesters produced by bacteria.
Not all bioplastics are biodegradable, and some are labelled as such even though they biodegrade very slowly and are actually not that different from conventional plastics. Still, the potential for plastic goods that are less damaging to the environment is there.
The major problem for proponents of this eco tech strategy is cost. Ordinary plastic is still far cheaper to produce, especially when the cost (and environmental impact) of cultivating the materials and the processing and manufacturing costs are built in. In this respect, bioplastic production faces some of the same problems as biofuel.
However, like many eco tech solutions, the cost may go down in time and as the environmental threat grows, the urgent need to deal with environmental waste and contamination may temper the penny-pinching mindset. One remaining problem is the vested interest of large corporations and manufacturers in the production of goods like plastic bags.
Bioplastics are versatile, and different kinds are suitable for all the usual products, from plastic wrap to parts and insulation materials. Other problems also arise, and remain to be resolved. The impact of emissions such as methane from biodegrading plastics remains to be properly estimated. Bioplastics for recycling would need to be separated from conventional plastic waste because the recycling process differs. That complicates life for householders and recyclers alike.
Like many eco tech solutions, the future is not plain sailing, but the potential is clear. It is even suggested that biodegradable plastics for the horticulture and agricultural sectors will enhance soil fertility. Bioplastic have an almost infinite variety of applications, from home products to industry and even construction. It could be used for any and all of the plastic goods we are familiar with, and can barely live without. Along with other eco tech ideas, bioplastic goods are likely to become increasingly important in our lives.