Richard Walker

Why bioplastics are not necessarily the answer

Pretty much everyone who does not have a vested interest in plastic production seems to agree with us that there is too much plastic being used in packaging today, and that it is desirable to turn down the tap.

But what should we use instead?

The most important thing here is not to grasp at the first superficially attractive alternative, but to take a long, hard look at why we began using plastic in a particular role in the first place.

We have got into the bad habit of glibly assuming that pretty much everything needs packaging, and that plastic is the obvious solution, when our first step should be to ask whether a product really requires packaging at all. And, if it we are sure that it does, asking what is the most environmentally friendly way of doing this.

Some people have started bigging up bioplastics as the obvious answer. True, they aren’t made from our finite reserves of fossil fuel, which seems like a move in the right direction. But they are made from plants, which means that they might well be taking up land that could be better used for food production.

The more important objection, though, is simply this: where bioplastics are engineered to replicate current plastics, they will still last for 500 years and if they end up in the sea they will still choke and entangle marine life, and break down into the same sort of environmentally damaging microplastics as ‘the real thing’.

Similarly, ‘biodegrable plastics’ sound great, but actually this can be seriously misleading. Unless they are independently certified as truly biodegradable or compostable, they aren’t the answer. If they get into the oceans they are liable to sink, and unlikely to be subject the temperatures at which they will begin to break down. At best, research from the Ellen Macarthur Foundation suggests that these too are most likely to fragment and contribute to microplastic pollution, rather than vanishing harmlessly as their sales pitch suggests.

If we are going to deal with the scourge of global plastic pollution we need to find alternatives that are truly biodegradable and compostable at the end of their lives. And we need clear guidelines and regulations from the Government to ensure that the right solutions are adopted across industry.

We also need to accept that global marine pollution is our problem and our responsibility here in the West, even if most dumping in the oceans can currently be traced back to Asia.

The need for a solution is urgent, but let us not be in so much of a hurry that we end up rushing headlong from the plastic frying pan into the bioplastic fire.

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