The High (Environmental) Cost of Bioplastics

May 05, 2008

By Bernice Hurst, Managing Partner, Fine Food Network

First the wonders of biofuel have begun to appear less wonderful. Now bioplastic material, created as an antidote to the oil-based plastics so many people have learned to hate, is being criticized for creating as many problems as it solves.

The UK’s Guardian has reported their own study’s findings that plastics made from plants, particularly corn, “can increase emissions of greenhouse gases on landfill sites.” Some, they say, “need high temperatures to decompose and others cannot be recycled in Britain.”

Known as Pla, polylactic acid is made from corn and used for packaging by Wal-Mart, McDonald’s, Del Monte and Marks & Spencer to name but a few. It is made by American company NatureWorks, jointly owned by Cargill, the world’s second largest biofuel producer, and Teijin, one of the world’s largest plastic manufacturers.

According to The Guardian, the market for bioplastics, which are made from maize, sugarcane, wheat and other crops, is growing by 20-30 percent a year. Like biofuels, however, their production is said to be diverting land from food production.

The newspaper also maintains that Pla barely breaks down on landfill sites, and can only be composted in the handful of anaerobic digesters which exist in Britain, but which do not take any packaging. In addition, if Pla is sent to UK recycling works in large quantities, it can contaminate the waste stream, reportedly making other recycled plastics unsaleable.

Proponents in the industry, The Guardian says, describe their products as “sustainable,” “biodegradable,” “compostable” and “recyclable,” claiming that bioplastics make carbon savings of 30-80 percent compared with conventional oil-based plastics and can extend the shelf life of food.

Quoting Peter Skelton of Wrap, the UK government-funded Waste and Resources Action Programme, the story went on to explain that “just because it’s biodegradable does not mean it’s good. If it goes to landfill it breaks down to methane. Only a percentage is captured. In theory bioplastics are good. But in practice there are lots of barriers.”

Innocent drinks, one of Britain’s best-selling smoothie makers, with a reputation for its environmental awareness and activities, has stopped using Pla because commercial composting is “not yet a mainstream option” in the UK. A spokesman for Sainsbury’s, which will not be using Pla, said, “No local authority is collecting compostable packaging at the moment.”

Discussion questions: What can retailers do to understand (and help their customers understand) the confusing and contradictory facts about biofuels and bioplastics? Will confusion about what can be done to reduce damage to the environment make retailers and consumers less likely to do anything?

[Author’s commentary]
There is a great deal of science and technology attached to this argument. Boiled down to basics, however, the facts are that increasing numbers of consumers and retailers want to take positive steps to reduce damage to the environment but are increasingly confused and frustrated about what they can do.

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3 Comments on "The High (Environmental) Cost of Bioplastics"

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Todd Brown
Todd Brown
14 years 24 days ago

Having worked with the first bottled water application of PLA in the US, I am very familiar with all of the arguments against using it to replace petroleum-based products. For the most part, the arguments are based in truth–there is no adequate recycling process yet for PLA; curbside pickup for composting doesn’t exist in most places; a significant amount of PLA will contaminate existing petroleum-based plastic recycling, and so on.

However, doing something…anything…to reduce our use of petroleum and petroleum-based plastics is overwhelmingly better than doing nothing. Necessity is the mother of invention, and commercial recycling will respond to the need for PLA recycling when there is enough to worry about. Consumers need to be educated to the larger picture, and not to focus on the (small) detractions, and then they will respond.

M. Jericho Banks PhD
M. Jericho Banks PhD
14 years 24 days ago

Retailers can do what they always do in situations like this, which is to pressure their suppliers to search for and implement improved packaging practices. They can also use their store locations to dispense up-to-date packaging information. The packaging used by supermarkets for their deli and other departments routinely follows the lead of major manufacturers because of favorable pricing from the economies of scale, so there are fewer packaging decisions made by supermarkets than one would think.

Mark Lilien
14 years 23 days ago

Retailers win when they encourage their customers to use less packaging. There’s no free lunch, no clear winning strategy to alternative packaging because everything has a downside. So how about “just say no”? In the dark ages of 10 years ago, how did people live without bottled water? Why don’t retailers charge for bags? They could make the charge more palatable by giving the money to environmental charities, and they’d still save a bundle. Same for fast food restaurants.


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