Bioplastics – Not the Solution to our Plastic Problem

In a World that changes so fast, it’s ironic that something that changes so slowly became as popular as it has.

Plastic has been around for a decent time now and the crazy thing is that it’s going to be around for a whole lot longer. I’m not going to go into the history of plastic and all its everlasting details, this is not Wikipedia, but I will mention this; We have an addiction to plastic and it’s going to be a tough one to shake off.

So tough that even when we introduce alternatives to the product they basically mimic the original in every way except raw material.

Compostable Plastics

Introducing polylactic acid (PLA) or as you may have heard at your local smoothie store, compostable plastic aka biodegradable plastic aka plant plastic aka bioplastic. This “wonder product” has been named as the replacement to good ol’ plastic (The stuff made from fossil fuels) and a lot of people now advertise that their range of kale infused quinoa smoothie powder is ‘plastic free’ because it is packaged in PLA.

Before we get deep into it, let’s take a quick stroll through the corn fields.

The Beginnings

This is where it begins, well some of it. Corn, which is primarily a food also has some other benefits, namely its starch. This starch is being used to manufacture a range of bioplastics from the stuff being used by 3D printers to straws, cutlery and even airbags.

A lot of companies are selling this as a “green” alternative to plastic, dubbing it as the product of the future. The problem is not that companies are using it; we understand that we can’t get away from packaging entirely. The problem starts with misinformation which leads to a lack of understanding and then there’s the lack of infrastructure to deal with compostable plastics.

The Problem

Companies are touting all PLA as ‘compostable’ or 100% Biodegradable. There are many arguments on the web about what the difference is between biodegradable, degradable and compostable and what exactly they mean, for a quick fact check click here, however what the companies don’t say, when they mention that their PLA Spoon is compostable is that PLA requires heat to break down and a lot of it over an extended period of time.  The only way to get that kind of heat is in a commercial composter not at home, that’s for sure. (Trust us, we have done all the tests)

“Most bioplastics need a commercial composting environment and temperatures of 60 degrees plus in order to break down. They also cause confusion leading to potential soil contamination due to looking identical to plastic.”


So why this sudden rush to PLA? Well if you haven’t heard the cries against plastic, welcome to the internet, I’m glad you chose this as your first article to read, but seriously, plastic is bad and we all know it, and when the public finally caught on and started asking for change, the guys on top realised that something needed to be done, so they made straws out of corn starch instead of petroleum. The thing is, once dropped on the floor by the uncaring individual and blown into the sea by the unknowing wind, both products act exactly the same. The PLA straw and the plastic straw will still end up in a poor turtle’s nose.

And what about recycling? This is another thing that the PLA Punters choose not to mention. It can’t be recycled in many parts of the World and most definitely can’t in South Africa. PLA that looks identical to plastic also causes massive confusion because, well, people can’t tell the difference – not even the professionals. This can lead to contamination at composting facilities and eventually our soils. (Which by the way are vital to our survival.)

“So what happens to PLA once thrown into the bin, recycling or other? Either it makes it all the way to the recycling plant, gets separated and becomes trash or it gums up recycling machines because it can’t be processed.”

More often than not it goes straight to the landfill and ends up sitting, like plastic, for thousands of years in a massive heap with its plastic brothers and sisters.

But wait a minute. Don’t you sell catering supplies?

Hell yeah. Whilst we advocate for a zero waste life, we want to provide restaurants with the best options out there at the moment for when people don’t bring their own. That means tons of research, lots of self-testing and a commitment to making sure that the products we do sell don’t resemble plastic and can be composted AT HOME! We haven’t managed to get away from PLA completely – yet. Some of our products, mainly the coffee cups, have a thin PLA lining which we have tested in our home composting system and thus far have fared far better than any of the pure PLA options such as straws and clear smoothie cups. (We believe that by us selling these, traders are moving away from the paper-based LDPE (plastic) lined coffee cups which can’t be recycled and can’t be composted, anywhere. So it’s not the answer, but it is a step in the right direction.)

 The Solutions

There is hope. First of all, as with anything it starts with you:

  1. Educate yourself and find out exactly what it is that you are consuming.
  2. Speak up and ask better of restaurants and retailers
  3. Reduce and refuse. Do you really need a straw or a silly little plastic lid for your coffee? If you do then buy a permanent straw or coffee cup and keep it on you.
  4. When you can’t avoid it, take responsibility for your waste and contain it in an ecobrick

“Our Rule? If it looks like plastic and feels like plastic it will act like plastic and should be avoided.”

For help and guidance with how to live a greener life contact us today.

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