Bioplastics have emerged as a possible solution to the problem of plastic pollution. Emphasis in the possible here. Their name sure seems environmentally friendly because of the bio- prefix. But what are bioplastics? According to Bioplastics Europe, these are plastics that are bio-based, biodegradable, or both.1
Bio-based refers to materials that are derived in part or in whole from biomass, that is, plants or other biological systems other than petroleum. For example, sugar cane or sugar beet is used to produce the monomer ethylene, which can be polymerized into bio-based polyethylene.2 Common products made of polyethylene include shampoo bottles, milk jugs, and plastic bags, among others. Moreover, some of these products can be labelled as “bio-based” even if they contain only a small percentage of bioplastics in their overall composition, with the rest being fossil-based plastics. Now, I bet you never threw your “bio” shampoo bottle in your garden and thought, “I’m not polluting, this is going to be biodegraded soon!”. That’s because not all bio-based plastics are biodegradable, and not all biodegradable plastics are bio-based. Understanding this difference is key! Bio-based refers to the origin of the raw materials used to produce the plastic, while biodegradable means that it can be decomposed by living organisms, such as bacteria and enzymes, for example. In the shampoo bottle example above, the material is bio-based but not biodegradable. Inversely, poly (butylene adipate-co-terephthalate) (PBAT), which is commercialized as cling wrap and compostable plastic bags, is a fossil-based plastic that is fully biodegradable.
So, when we put these two materials into the same bag with a “bioplastic” label, we miss to differentiate the source and the end-of-life characteristics of the product. This generic term allows many manufacturers to “greenwash” the public. Greenwashing is when consumers are misled about how sustainable a product is.3 The idea behind the development of bioplastics is to reduce the carbon footprint of the products made from such materials, but this ambiguity in the classification of bioplastics leaves plenty of room for greenwashing. To utterly understand the carbon footprint of a bioplastic, a whole analysis of its life cycle must be considered. What is it made of? Is it biodegradable? Is it recyclable? How much energy is needed for its proper disposal? The list of questions to be answered is rather long and specific for each material on a case-by-case basis. If, as a consumer, understanding the real characteristics of the packaging materials you are buying is important to you, the term “bioplastic” will not give you enough information. You need to dig in a little more.
Another important question about bio-based plastics is more of an ethical one. We previously explained that bio-based plastics are made from feedstock such as food crops. One good example is corn, which is used to produce polylactic acid, or PLA. Corn is a crop that, in order to grow, needs land, water, fertilizers, and energy for the harvest. One argument that one can pose against crop-derived plastics is the diversion of land and other resources from the production of food to the production of bio-based plastics. Why is this relevant? Because according to the Global Hunger Index, nearly 690 million people are malnourished, 144 million children suffer from stunting, a sign of chronic undernutrition, and 47 million children suffer from wasting, a sign of acute undernutrition.4 With such alarming numbers showing the state of world hunger currently, one can wonder if it is responsible to divert some of the available resources from food to bioplastic production. Defenders of bio-based plastics point out that currently, only 0.016% of all available arable land globally, which accounts for approximately 790.000 hectares, are used to produce bio-based plastics. However, this number is only projected to increase in the coming years, reaching 1.1 million hectares in 2025.5
Overall, understanding if bioplastics are ultimately better for the environment than oil-derived ones depends on many distinct factors. As environmental engineer and National Geographic explorer Jenna Jambeck said in this National Geographic article, it “is a big question based on many 'ifs”.3
Wait, so that is it? Do we either partially solve the problem of plastic pollution or world hunger? Well, of course not. Luckily, there is still a lot of potential in unconventional source materials and uncharted technologies that can create transparently environmentally friendly materials, without the need to worry about any of the issues raised above.
At Cellugy we developed a bio-based material, EcoFLEXY, to be used in many applications to replace fossil-based plastics while being recyclable, biodegradable, and compostable. EcoFLEXY is made from sugar, which allows us to utilize potential waste streams like surplus sugar, this is, excess sugar from the sugar market.
The EU is the world’s largest producer of beet sugar and the third largest cane sugar producer. The EU sugar sector has been historically regulated and has been facing a systemic crisis since the abolition of import quotas and price regulation in 2017, which resulted in a boom in domestic production. In parallel, sugar prices reached a historic low, plunging the European sector into a crisis. In addition, sugar consumption has stagnated with a slight decrease in Europe and the US, mainly due to changes in food consumption habits. Sugar is regarded as one of the main causes of obesity, so companies are offering more low-sugar products in relation to these changing habits.6 Historically, biofuels have acted as regulatory outlets for surplus sugar or “non-quota” production, and consequently, the market experienced significant growth.7 However, the 2019/2020 season still closed with 1.9 million tons of surplus sugar globally.8 The production of bioplastics from surplus sugar from the European market could help regulate the sector, bringing many small producers back into business, without demanding additional arable land.
So, what is this promising material like? Our product, EcoFLEXY, is produced by a white biotechnology process in which a specific strain of microorganisms converts the sugar into bio-cellulose, like the structural component of the primary cell wall of green plants! This means that, like plants, bio-cellulose can be degraded by other microorganisms. EcoFLEXY can also be used in combination with paper and cardboard as a replacement for fossil-based plastics, enabling a truly circular economy for such materials. At Cellugy, we designed our product with nature as an inspiration and mimicking naturally occurring processes. Because what better way of reducing our impact on the environment that by blending with it when designing our systems?
So, what does this all mean? That unlike “bioplastics” in general, materials and products made from EcoFLEXY truly are a sustainable alternative to fossil-based plastics. No questions needed.