What Are Bioplastics & Are They Eco-friendly?

So we’ve all read the news: plastic is everywhere – in our food, our water, and now even our blood. Terrifying. And totally unavoidable. (As modern-day consumers, anyway.) As we enter into Plastic Free July, let’s take a further look into this plastic issue.

This post isn’t too scaremonger, quite the opposite. There are plenty of news articles and scientific papers doing just that. I am here to educate you on solutions. We, the consumers, are often blamed for the astronomical levels of plastic in the world – we are led to believe our patronage and high demand for the stuff drives production, and simply Big Industry responds accordingly. That is simply not true. But there is hope – lots of supermarkets are moving to sustainable bioplastic solutions and have agreed to lower their plastic use in general, so the onus is less on you. Nonetheless, we have the power to bring less plastic into our homes as possible.

Back To The Basics: What Is Plastic And Where Does It Come From?

Plastic is essentially a series of polymers. A polymer is a substance consisting of many repeating units, linked together in a chain. These polymers can be naturally occurring – like cellulose, silk, DNA, or wood or synthetic. These synthetic polymers (most often derived from petroleum), are what we most commonly know as plastic. The Science History Institute explains that this includes – polyethylene (used in plastic bags); polystyrene (used to make Styrofoam cups); polypropylene (used for fibres and bottles); polyvinyl chloride (used for food wrap, bottles, and drain pipe); and polytetrafluoroethylene, or Teflon (used for nonstick surfaces). For information on how these are formed into plastic as we know it, click the link above.

The Classification Of Microplastics

Macro, micro, nano. You may have heard those terms used in the conversation around plastic pollution. These are “any synthetic solid particle or polymeric matrix, with regular or irregular shape and with size ranging from 1 μm to 5 mm, of either primary or secondary manufacturing origin, which are insoluble in water. (IMP.act – Managing for microplastics: a baseline to inform policy stakeholders)

They are classified by size: μm- micrometre, mm- millimetre, cm- centimetre

Nanoplastics: 1–1000 nm (subdivided into nanoplastics 1–100 nm and sub-microplastics 100–1000 nm), microplastics: 1–1000 µm, mesoplastics: 1–10 mm and macroplastics: >1 cm.

Now that We’ve Got The Basics Out Of The Way, Let’s Look At Some Solutions!

The highest ranked UK Supermarkets for sustainability by Which.co.uk, are Lidl and Waitrose. To see the rankings and reasonings, check out the 2022 report. This shows that shopping green, or environmentally friendly is not an exclusive classist privilege, but available on any budget.

The UK Plastic Pact April 2018. 

In 2018, WRAP, a UK-based NGO, united over 100 UK businesses, including all the major UK supermarket chains, to agree to tackle four targets by 2025:

  1. Eliminate problematic or unnecessary single-use packaging through redesign, innovation or alternative (reuse) delivery model.
  2. 100% of plastics packaging to be reusable, recyclable or compostable.
  3. 70% of plastics packaging effectively recycled or composted.
  4. 30% average recycled content across all plastic packaging.

To see how well they’ve achieved those targets, check out the report from 2021 here. In general, great progress has been made, and though it may involve a little bit of greenwashing, there has been a significant change!

Furthermore, bioplastics are starting to replace some supermarket packaging. Sulapac, Colombier, BIOM, Alpagro, BIOPAK, DSM, NatureWorks, Arkema Group, and Nerabolix are just some companies providing such solutions.

A Guide To Bioplastics:

So, to establish the basics, bioplastics are plastics made from natural polymers.

Common natural sources of these bioplastics are PLAs – plastics made from sugar polymers; or PHAs, engineered from microorganisms. On the market you can find bioplastics that are soy-based, cellulose-based, bacteria-based, lignin-based, starch-based plastics, and sugar polymer-based. Common sugar-derived bioplastics come from corn, sugarcane, beetroot, potatoes, and wheat.

Bioplastics are surprisingly easy to make from home to! Many designers are employing homemade plastics in their work, for textiles, jewellery, or interior design. Woven textile designer, Sarah Tibbles, is one such that has experimented with creating her own bioplastics. She created a jewellery collection out of Agar and Cornstarch, check it out below.

There is, however, quite a debate around the true sustainability of these bioplastics. Though they are biodegradable, have a lower carbon footprint, and are derived from renewable sources; on the opposing side, scientists have found that on a larger scale, damage to the environment can be almost as bad as petroleum plastics. In true Big Agriculture form, many harmful pesticides and fertilisers are released into the environment from growing the corn or whatnot necessary to source the polymers.

Moreover, if they aren’t disposed of correctly, they can be almost as damaging to the environment as PET plastic. Yale Environment 360 explains, that “while both of the bioplastics now in use can be broken down by microorganisms and become part of the natural world again in a short period of time, this only happens if the plastic is collected and composted in carefully controlled, high-temperature industrial composting facilities — and there aren’t many of those, especially in developing countries where the problem of plastic pollution is most severe. If bioplastics end up in landfills, as many do, without enough oxygen to break them down, they can last for centuries and release methane, a potent greenhouse gas. If thrown into the environment, they pose threats similar to PET plastic.”

So in conclusion, all types of plastic are pretty poor for the environment! So let’s look to completely natural alternatives instead. 

Here at Wearth London, we stock a range of environmentally friendly products made from sustainable materials and avoiding plastic where possible. Our content team has created a plethora of guides to help you shop completely plastic free. Check them out by clicking the links below:

Everything You Need In Your Plastic Free Beach Bag

The Ultimate Eco-Friendly Festival Kit

The Best Plastic-Free Moisturisers That Target Your Skin Concerns

The Best Sustainable Swimwear: UK Based Brands Designing with the Planet in Mind

Is Vegan Leather Sustainable? Here’s Everything You Need To Know

I hope you’ve learnt something today, and good luck on your plastic-free (or bioplastic) journey this Plastic Free July!