“Bioplastics” may sound too good to be true—materials that look, feel, and perform like conventional plastics, without some or all of the toxic fossil fuel-based ingredients, and with less impact on the climate and Earth. And that’s because they are too good to be true: “Bioplastics” do not benignly break down, often contain or are coated with hazardous chemicals, drive pollution and injustice, and perpetuate wasteful throwaway systems and single-use habits.
In reality, bioplastics are not the solution to plastic pollution—despite what the bioplastics industry wants you to believe. We’re here to dispel bioplastics marketing myths and shed light on truth, so you can avoid greenwashing and engage in real solutions to plastic pollution.
What are Bioplastics?
Bioplastics are made from highly processed plant-based ingredients, such as corn, potatoes, sugar beets, sugar cane, agave, or wheat, with some bioplastics containing just 25% plant-based ingredients and as much as 75% fossil fuel ingredients. Because they are made at least partially from plants, bioplastics are generally considered to release fewer total greenhouse gas emissions than conventional plastics, which seems like a positive. But the plants grown industrially to produce bioplastics cause serious harm to people and the planet, such as stressing the climate, displacing people and nature, wasting and polluting water resources, and driving fertilizer and pesticide pollution. What’s more, industrially produced bioplastics are made in facilities that release greenhouse gases and other pollutants, most often into already underserved communities harmed by environmental injustices. These same communities are also most likely to be burdened by landfills, incinerators, and industrial compost facilities that cause more pollution at this end of the bioplastics pipeline.
Due to their plant origins, bioplastics are also called “bio-based” or “biomass-based.” The term bioplastics is sometimes used to describe (sometimes inaccurately) “bio-compostable,” “biodegradable,” “compostable,” “marine-degradable,” or “soil-degradable” plastics—which are certified to decompose with or without composting at the end of their usefulness. Many bioplastics are not degradable or compostable (even with certification).
These single-use materials are commonly marketed as a more earth- and climate-friendly choice than conventional fossil fuel–based plastics. Because they are marketed as a solution to plastic pollution, these plastics are now being increasingly used and distributed, particularly in grocery stores and eateries where they are commonly used to replace conventional plastic bags, cups, containers, cutlery, plates, and straws. Some plastics regulations require bioplastics to replace conventional materials across municipal regions.
The bioplastics market was valued at more than $7.6 billion in 2021; that value is expected to rise to more than $15.5 billion by 2028. At the same time, the market for conventional fossil fuel–based plastics is expected to surge in value from $609 billion in 2022 to more than $770 billion by 2028. Production of conventional plastics cannot be displaced by a surge in bioplastics production. In fact, investing in bioplastics is also investing in conventional plastics as the chemical additives, fossil fuels, and production processes and equipment necessary for all plastic production overlap, driving related pollution and injustice.
What Happens When You Throw Bioplastics “Away”?
When you’re done using bioplastic products, their labels may suggest that you can simply throw them in your compost bin or pile, or deposit them along with your municipal or private trash or recycling to be collected and composted industrially at high temperatures. However, many bioplastics are not truly biodegradable, and even fewer are truly compostable. Instead, all bioplastics have the potential to act like conventional plastics—breaking up into small particles that pollute the Earth and our bodies, rather than actually breaking down and being benignly reincorporated into the Earth and our bodies.
Studies have found that the majority of bioplastics labeled as compostable do not actually break down in home compost systems. Instead, these items may remain virtually intact for years, endangering wildlife with risk of ingestion and entanglement. Because many municipalities lack industrial composting facilities, much bioplastic ultimately ends up being sent to landfills and incinerators along with most conventional plastic to release microplastics and climate-warming gases. And because they are made to mimic conventional plastics, bioplastics are often mistakenly added to recycling streams only to contaminate other materials.
What’s more, researchers have found that most bioplastics—including those made primarily from plants—contain toxic chemicals. In fact, one study has found that commonly sold bioplastics contain more than 10,000 different chemicals, and up to 20,000 chemicals—hundreds of which are known to be toxic and are also commonly used in conventional, fossil fuel–based plastics. So when bioplastics break up, they’re also releasing toxic additive chemicals into the environment, into compost (which is especially problematic if you grow food in your compost), and into our bodies where they can persist for long periods of time.
While not technically bioplastics, because they are not made from plants, oxo-degradable and oxo-biodegradable plastics are often considered biodegradable because they are marketed as eco-friendly choices. In reality, oxo-type plastics are just conventional fossil fuel–based plastics mixed with additives meant to speed up the rate at which they break up into microplastics, especially when exposed to enough heat, oxygen, or sunlight. They are not compostable and do not become organic matter—they can only be reduced to tiny plastic particles.
Real Solutions: Move Beyond Bioplastics and Single-Use
Many people realize that conventional fossil-fuel based plastic isn’t good for people or the environment. But it’s harder for some to let go of the convenience of single-use, especially if it seems to be “green”—that’s the appeal of bioplastics. The unfortunate reality is that bioplastics and similar plant-based alternatives to conventional plastic aren’t much better for the Earth or our bodies.
Because greenwashing is everywhere, it is important for consumers to be savvy and do some research to understand what these marketing companies are actually communicating on their packaging and in their campaigns. There are few regulations to stop companies from using greenwashing marketing terms misleadingly, so the way to make change is to be proactive and learn something. Businesses understand money, and if people know the truth about products and stop purchasing them, that will speak volumes.
We should strive to be zero-waste, or at least, try to be much less wasteful. Engage in plastic-free reuse, refill, repair, and share practices. Some resourceful ideas include:
• Compost produce, coffee grounds, eggshells, and tea leaves to produce rich soils for your garden
• Get your food and dry goods from refill/reuse shops
• Repair (or make) your clothing
• Save glass jars from store-bought pasta sauce, peanut butter, or preserves and use those at the refill store or to store leftovers (instead of purchasing new ones or using plastic)
• Use reusable sandwich bags or wraps that can be washed, such as those made of beeswax, instead of plastic wrap to keep food fresh on-the-go
Of course, it’s important to refuse single-use plastic and bioplastics in your daily life. It can be as simple as saying, “No straw, please,” or bringing your own reusable water bottle and bag when you leave home. These small actions add up, and send a message to companies and the world that you don’t want all this plastic. If you must choose single-use, opt for items made from (optimally, third-party certified) non-toxic materials, such as mushroom mycelium, algae, hemp, bamboo, and other truly biodegradable materials without chemical additives.