So, bioplastics – where did that topic come from? Well, we've gotten this question a few times from you - the super discerning, dig-deep-for-truth beautiful people that you are! You've seen bioplastics pop up in beauty packaging, you want to know the whole truth, and we are so here for it!
In fact, if you have any questions about cosmetic formulations, packaging, or really anything under the beauty sun, we’re happy to share our knowledge, do the research for you, and share what we find! Let us know your questions anytime!
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Whereas conventional plastic is made from petroleum materials, bioplastic is mostly made from plants or other renewable materials.
The most common bioplastic, PLA, is made by extracting sugar from corn and sugarcane, and the second most common (PHA), is made from genetically engineered microorganisms and other organic materials.
Bioplastics can also be made from plant cellulose, wheat, milk casein, and countless other materials that are being discovered every day.
Bioplastics were first invented about 100 years ago. It’s only recently though, as our waste/plastic crisis has become glaringly obvious, that people have started to pay attention to this plastic alternative.
It’s seen as a more eco-friendly to conventional plastic by some, but is heavily criticized by others. So, what’s the truth?
Bioplastics are seen by some as a more sustainable alternative to conventional plastic – fans say they’ll use less fossil fuel, will decompose easier/faster, and they have a small carbon footprint.
When you look closer, however, they’re not without their drawbacks. Let’s chat about why:
Research has found that bioplastics produce more toxins than conventional plastic from the use of pesticides, fertilizers, and chemicals used to convert plants into plastic.
Plants produce oxygen and remove carbon dioxide (one of the main greenhouse gases) from the atmosphere. As we convert more natural environments to crops for bioplastics, fewer greenhouse gases are removed from the atmosphere.
Growing bioplastic crops means taking land that could be used to grow food, and instead, we're growing plastic. There is only so much viable land available, and food needs to come before packaging.
While thought of as ‘biodegradable’, the truth is, most bioplastics will only biodegrade under very specific conditions found in advanced industrial composting facilities. They can’t be just thrown in a pile to be broken down like regular plant material. For cities that have these facilities, bioplastics can be great. Most areas, however, don’t have these operations in place.
And even more confusing, there are different types of biodegradability. Some bioplastics can degrade with sunlight and oxygen, but they can take years, don’t degrade completely, and release toxic chemicals into the atmosphere, soil, and water.
And the worst part, decomposition of bioplastics releases methane, a greenhouse gas even worse than carbon dioxide.
Because they look so similar, most people can’t tell the difference between bioplastics and conventional plastic (and many have never even heard of bioplastic). So, consumers wind up throwing their bioplastics in with their other plastic recyclables.
The problem: most bioplastics are not recyclable. And when they enter a conventional recycling plant, they can become mixed with regular plastics, rendering the whole mix garbage. So, instead of reducing waste, oftentimes bioplastics create more waste.
This means that a material will eventually break down into tiny fragments. Even conventional plastic is degradable – with the right conditions, and over a very long time it will eventually break down into smaller parts. It will never return to its natural state however, and tiny pieces of it can stick around in the environment forever.
While there’s some grey area with this term, biodegradable means a material that can break down within a few months. Some bioplastics can take years to break down, and these are instead called ‘durable’.
Materials that will biodegrade in a compost pile at the same rate as other natural materials, leaving no toxins behind. The problem: some ‘compostable’ materials will only biodegrade properly in an industrial composting facility with very specific conditions, whereas others can break down in a backyard compost pile.
Materials that can be repurposed for other uses. Most bioplastic is not recyclable. To learn more about how to keep your recyclables out of the landfill, read our latest blog.
While it does have its issues, there are some promising new developments in the bioplastics world. New companies are beginning to produce bioplastics from food waste, crop residues, algae, and wastewater – all much more sustainable alternatives that could reduce many of the problems above.
Also, if more education is given to consumers on how to dispose of their bioplastic packaging (and how to tell it apart from plastic), it could be a great alternative. And the most important step: getting more facilities that are equipped to handle these new materials.
Look on labels for disposal direction – check for recyclable, compostable, or biodegradable labels on your packaging. Usually, you can find a symbol or written label that explains how to dispose of the packaging. If there are no indicators, you can assume it’s destined for the landfill.
For more on reading recycling symbols, visit our blog on recycling your beauty buys.
The truth is, there’s no perfect alternative for our plastic addiction at the moment. The best we can do – choose better, use less, and reuse more. And don’t beat ourselves up (or worse, give up because it seems too overwhelming) when we don’t get it perfect. Some easy tips to reduce your plastic usage:
The biggest way to reduce your plastic use overall is to consume less. Get more intentional about what you’re purchasing – buy fewer, higher quality, sustainable items that you need or just truly love.
A surprising fact: about 60% of our clothing is made of fibers that come from plastic including nylon, acrylic, and polyester. When washed, these fabrics shed plastic microfibers that end up in our waterways and oceans. What you can do to limit this:
Thanks for being the Earth-loving humans that you are! Let us know any other questions you have in your quest to #choosebetterbeauty.
- Āether Beauty xo
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