23 December 2020

Bioplastics – Recyclable, compostable or disposable?

By Clement Sim Jun Wen

A consumer’s actions may not always match their intentions. As the world struggles against the crisis of plastic pollution, bio-based plastics, also known as bioplastics, have emerged as one of the most favoured solutions.

However, studies found that although consumers view bioplastic products as beneficial for the environment, some were unfamiliar with how to dispose of these products. Correct disposal of bioplastics is key to maximising the environmental benefits that bioplastic products can offer. In contrast, the incorrect disposal of bioplastics may be harmful towards the environment.

Bioplastics have gained popularity because they are made of renewable materials instead of oil, like traditional plastics. The production of bioplastics with renewable materials reduces greenhouse gas emissions. Researchers have predicted the use of bioplastics to increase by 20 to 25% every year as more consumers begin to use bioplastics as alternatives to oil-based plastics. 

Researchers have even found that consumers were willing to pay higher prices for environmentally friendly products such as bioplastics. However, consumers’ unfamiliarity with bioplastics often lead to incorrect disposal behaviours that overshadow their intentions.

Many bioplastic products that have found their way into consumers’ shopping carts come with labels such as ‘bio-based’, ‘biodegradable’, ‘compostable’, and/or ‘recyclable’. Despite having different meanings, products may interchange these labels, causing confusion among consumers.

To clarify in simple terms, ‘bio-based’ plastics are made renewably with plants or other biological materials. ‘Biodegradable’ plastics are degradable by naturally occurring organisms such as bacteria, fungi, and algae.

‘Compostable’ plastics are biodegradable in specific composting environment and conditions. ‘Recyclable’ plastics can be melted down and moulded into new products. These labels are important because they help consumers identify the correct disposal option for bioplastic products.

Bioplastics are either completely or partially made from renewable, bio-based materials. Despite that, not all bioplastics are biodegradable or recyclable. Regardless of being bio-based or oil-based, the polymer used to make a plastic will decide whether it should be discarded normally, recycled, or composted.

For example, bio-based polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is chemically identical to petroleum-based PET, and both are used to manufacture plastic water bottles. Both kinds of PET are recyclable but not biodegradable.

Since some bioplastics are neither recyclable nor compostable, the incorrect disposal of bioplastics may contaminate recycling and composting systems. Even if a bioplastic is labelled as biodegradable or compostable, it should not be thrown into the environment. This is because biodegradability does not mean that the bioplastic will biodegrade in any environment.

Many biodegradable plastics are only degradable in specific industrial composting conditions. However, the bioplastics that can be accepted for recycling and composting differ from city to city. Therefore, it is important for consumers to contact their local waste facility operators for help on choosing the correct disposal option for bioplastic products.

It is undeniable that plastic pollution is among the worst problems affecting our planet today, and bioplastics have emerged as one of the solutions with the most potential to resolve this problem. Therefore, measures must be taken to inform consumers about bioplastic products and how to correctly dispose of them to ensure that bioplastics fulfil their purpose of being sustainable alternatives to traditional plastics.

Clement Sim Jun Wen is a second-year Bachelor of Science (Biotechnology) student at Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus.