Whenever I engage in a discussion about additive manufacturing or 3D printing materials and put an emphasis on the current use and even bigger future potential of bioplastics, I encounter a wide-spread misconception:
bioplastics = biodegradable plastics
And this bothers me as it is simply wrong! Most dangerously, it plays with the promise of easy disposal, encouraging the belief that you can throw bioplastics away into nature and they will sooner or later decompose. (Or maybe it simply makes you feel better / less guilty about using plastics.)
Sadly, reality is far from it.
To begin with, biodegradable plastics are not that highly and universally desirable in the first place. For example, how compelling is the idea of a decomposing toilet seat? And, beyond the obvious discomfort of the seat disintegrating under your bottom, let’s think of biodegradation as an army of bacteria and microbes constantly biting pieces out of the plastic and leaving metabolic residues behind. The same applies to food packaging (think milk, beer, meat, etc.), kids toys, furniture etc. … Biodegradability is simply not to be universally desired (there are of course plenty of exceptions that prove this rule and I will come back to them in a separate article in future).
So what, then, is the correct definition of bioplastics? Why are bioplastics so hyped up, and is that rightfully so!?
The European Bioplastics Organization did create a good fact sheet so I won’t just repeat what you can read there or find on the internet instead. Just for the record, the definition goes like this:
“Bioplastics are bio-based, biodegradable or both.”
Without going too deep into mathematical set theory, the definition also includes petroleum-based plastics which can be composted. Again, this feat is mostly not desirable.
So, what is practically left of the definition is that bioplastics are bio-based – and that truly is a paradigm shift and the real game-changer, with huge implications!
Let’s think about it.
If you use plants or other kind of biomass (e.g. corn, crab shells, hemp fibers etc.) as feedstock for your plastics production you can create local or regional value streams for farmers, fishers, forest rangers etc. You can greatly simplify logistics as you can produce plastics closer to where consumption is. Using domestically available renewable raw material also helps to reduce our dependency on imported fossil resources (not to mention that, with that, there is a chance of diminishing international conflicts). But most importantly, you get to greatly reduce the carbon footprint because you capture CO2 out of the air into the plastic as well as greatly reduce energy consumption during plastic production because of modern biotechnology like advanced fermentation, purification and polymerization processes.
So if we really want to make the world a better place, as the phrase goes, then it’s not enough to invest in clean energy. Clean, green bioplastics are a big and often underestimated part of the solution.
FormWerk Founder & CEO