Is bioplastic biodegradable? (7 types of plastics) 

In this article, the biodegradability of bioplastics will be taken into account. Further deliberations would include: 

  • What is bioplastic?
  • What is plastic?
  • What are the types of plastic?
  • What are the applications of bioplastic?
  • What is biodegradation?
  • Is bioplastic biodegradable?
  • FAQs

Is bioplastic biodegradable? 

Yes, bioplastic is biodegradable because it is made from natural materials, unlike its counterparts. Both biodegradable and non-biodegradable plastics are present. 

Non-biodegradable plastics are conventional forms of plastics that are made from fossil fuels (crude oil et cetera) employing the polymerisation process. 

Biobased plastics are biodegradable as well and are made from plant sources such as corn starch and sugar cane. While bioplastics are biodegradable, they may still not be eco-friendly owing to unsustainable ways of production and toxicity to the environment, as laid out by contemporary research. 

What is bioplastic?

Bioplastic is a type of plastic that is made from life. Usually, plastics are synthesised from petroleum products which are known to cause damage to life and the environment. 

Biodegradable plastics are made from naturally occurring substances that may include plants such as cornstarch or sugar cane. Since these bio-based plastics are sourced from nature, they can biodegrade to become a part of nature again. 

The story of biodegradable plastic originated after the invention of conventional plastic and its increased use, primarily after the industrialisation era. This increase in use caused great harm to many aspects of life and the environment. 

With the advent of increased industrialisation, consumerism, and urbanisation; unimaginable amounts of plastic were used and consumed causing almost equal negative impacts on life, health and the environment. 

The use of conventional plastic has caused an immense impact on the environment. Plastic is converted into microplastic by the action of sunlight and other drivers that cause the death of organisms by entering their bodies. 

Biodegradable plastics are made from natural materials such as wheat, sugar cane or cornstarch. These plastics are made by converting sugars present in the plants into plastics. 

The source of this sugar can be sugar cane, sugar beets, wheat, and potatoes. This selection varies from region to region depending upon the availability. 

Generally, there are two types of biodegradable plastics that are produced. These are PHA (Polyhydroxyalkanoate) and PLA (Polyactideacid). 

Since these biodegradable plastics are made from natural materials, they can degrade in a short span of time as compared to conventional plastic bags that may require hundreds of years to degrade.

What is plastic? 

In simple terms, plastic is a polymer which is made from repeating units (monomers) and these monomers are linked with chemical bonds. 

Plastic is found everywhere these days. From the packaging material to plastic bottles to furniture items, and decoration material. Chances are that plastic is present in the majority of the stuff that you own. 

In order to get a better grasp of what plastic is, it is essential to know the science of polymers. That is because plastics are just another type of polymer.  

The word polymer is supposed to be derived from the Greek language which means many parts. Polymers are made up of small repeating units. These small repeating units are termed monomers. Monomers are held together by chemical bonds.

Polymers can be classified into two groups. These may be:

  • Natural polymers 
  • Synthetic polymers

As the names suggest, natural polymers are found in nature. There is no need to synthesise them in any way. Whereas, synthetic polymers, on the other hand, are synthesised in the lab.

Natural polymers are those polymers found in nature. It can be said that nature is the scientist that made these polymers and quite a magnificent one. Examples of these polymers can be: 

  • Wool
  • Carbohydrates
  • DNA
  • Protein
  • Cellulose
  • Silk
  • Chiton

These natural polymers adhere to nature’s ways and thus pose no great threats to nature and the environment. However, there are some factors that may change this proclivity. 

As per synthetic polymers, these polymers are synthesised in the lab. These synthetic polymers are created by man and the rule of thumb is that most of them do not really adhere to nature’s ways. Examples of these polymers may be: 

  • Teflon
  • Dyneema
  • Nylon
  • PVC
  • Polyethylene
  • Polyester
  • Epoxy

What are the types of plastic? (7 types of plastic) 

Generally, plastics are categorised into 7 classes or types. These may be:

  • PET
  • HDPE
  • PVC
  • LDPE
  • PP
  • Polystyrene 
  • Contemporary plastics 

As it could be guessed that these classes of plastics have several distinct properties and therefore, related functions based on their distinct properties and characteristics. 

The first category of plastics is called PET which expands to polyethylene terephthalate. This type of plastic is usually lucid in colour and is found in disposable beverages, food containers and bottles. Since our subject is plastic bottles, this is the type of plastic we will be getting into more detail about. 

The second category of plastic is called HDPE which expands into high-density polyethylene. It is mostly opaque in appearance and is used widely in juice bottles, detergents, and toiletries containers. This type is considered safe for humans in terms of exposure but it is unsafe for the environment. 

The third category is called PVC which expands to Polyvinyl Chloride. This type of plastic is mostly used in applications such as food wraps, cooking oil bottles and plumbing pipes. PVC contains BPA and phthalates. 

These chemicals are known to cause harm to humans by disrupting hormonal patterns while also being carcinogenic in nature. The constituents of PVC are also quite harmful to the environment as they may leach into the ground and cause toxicity and pollution. 

The fourth category of plastic is called LDPE which can be expanded into low-density polyethylene. The common applications of this type of plastic are food warps, grocery bags et cetera. This is relatively safer in the context of HDPE for human health. 

Next in line, we have polypropylene. This type of plastic is termed microwave safe because of its heat resistance properties. Therefore, it is most commonly used in kitchenware. However, even though it is heat resistant. Its use must be limited or else there could be medical complications. 

The sixth type of plastic is polystyrene which is also known as styrofoam. This type of plastic is renowned for packaging materials and disposable containers. However, it is deemed very unsafe to both humans and the environment and its use must be avoided to the best. 

The last category of plastic is called new plastic or contemporary plastic. It included all the new plastics that are synthesised in the market. It may include plastics that contain harmful chemicals like BPA and may also include bioplastics that are both degradable and relatively safer for the environment. 

What are the applications of biodegradable plastic?

This section of the article will cover the applications of biodegradable plastic. The applications of biodegradable plastic or bioplastic can be explained through two frames. One is the advantages that bioplastics deliver to the environment. The other is the advantages that bioplastics deliver to humans. 

As per the first aspect, we have already detailed what are the various detrimental impacts of conventional plastics that are made from the polymerisation process and involve fossils. 

The use of bioplastics implies that fossil fuels are not used and thus, the negative impacts are not given off to the environment. However, this aspect is still open to a lot of debate. 

Some researchers say that even though bioplastics are degradable, they still may take more than three years to degrade. Also, the toxic effects of bioplastics are also under consideration. 

Regardless of this dichotomy, the environmental impacts of biodegradable plastics are unequivocal. Although there is some element of subtlety, the impacts are not as blunt as the conventional plastics. 

Regarding the second aspect, which is the utilitarian value of biodegradable plastics, it is asserted that the utilitarian value of biodegradable plastics is similar to that of conventional plastics. There is no tradeoff here. It is owing to these uses that the global market of bioplastics is at 40 billion dollars. 

Some of the common uses of biodegradable plastics include: 

  • Packaging
  • Containers
  • Straws
  • Bags
  • Bottles
  • 3d printing
  • Medicinal applications 

What is biodegradation?

Biodegradability is a process through which complex materials are broken down into simple materials by the action of microbes. These microbes can be bacteria, fungi, viruses, protozoa, and even yeast. 

The process of biodegradability can be called a natural dustbin because it is nature’s way to ensure that there is no waste accumulation in the environment. It is coded in the profile of nature that waste has harmful impacts on the environment. 

The harmful impacts of waste are not just restricted to the environment but also the life that resides within it. If there is no biodegradation, there will be waste and deterioration of life and our atmosphere, in short, a global catastrophe. 

Regarding biodegradability, it is generally thought that there are two types of waste. These are biodegradable and non-biodegradable. 

As the name suggests, biodegradable waste can be broken down by the action of microbes. This waste can be plant-based or animal-based wastes. Other examples of this waste will include: 

  • Human waste
  • Paper waste
  • Manure
  • Sewage
  • Hospital waste
  • Plant waste

On the other hand, non-biodegradable waste is a type of waste which can not be degraded by the action of microbes. Such a type of waste is usually not found in nature. 

This means that non-biodegradable waste is mostly made or synthesised in the lab. Examples of non-biodegradable waste may be: 

  • Electronic waste
  • Plastics 
  • Polyvinyl Chloride
  • Synthetic dyes
  • Nuclear waste
  • Hazardous waste
  • Chemical waste

Is bioplastic biodegradable?

We have seen that since biodegradable plastics are made from plant-based substances like sugar cane and corn starch, they can be degraded by the action of microbes. 

However, the question still remains how much time is needed for bioplastics to degrade? It is researched that bio-plastics may also take up to 3 years to fully degrade under aquatic conditions. 

This time period is not that great given the context of common biodegradable products which may degrade in a few months. 

Further, it is also asserted that bioplastics may be equally toxic as conventional plastics. Recent studies have exposed that bio-plastics may also contain several harmful substances that pose risks to life and the environment. 

Conclusion 

It is concluded that both biodegradable and non-biodegradable plastics are present. Non-biodegradable plastics are conventional forms of plastics that are made from fossil fuels (crude oil et cetera) employing the polymerisation process. 

Biobased plastics are biodegradable as well and are made from plant sources such as corn starch and sugar cane. 

While bioplastics are biodegradable, they may still not be eco-friendly owing to unsustainable ways of production and toxicity to the environment, as laid out by contemporary research. 

Frequently Asked Questions: Is bioplastic biodegradable?

How long does bioplastic take to degrade?

Biodegradable plastic may degrade in some months to three years. Complete biodegradability is still a scientific curiosity, however. 

What materials are used to make biodegradable plastic?

The materials may be sugar cane, sugar beet, or cornstarch. 

References

  • Halden, R. U. (2010). Plastics and health risks. Annual review of public health, 31, 179-194.
  • Hopewell, J., Dvorak, R., & Kosior, E. (2009). Plastics recycling: challenges and opportunities. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 364(1526), 2115-2126.
  • Andrady, A. L. (Ed.). (2003). Plastics and the Environment. John Wiley & Sons.

What was missing from this post which could have made it better?

Leave a Comment