Packages and closures for packaging

Bioplastic, Hope for the planet or a wolf in sheep’s clothing?

Our world is flooded by plastic. Since the beginning of the “plastic age” we’ve been able to reuse just 10% of that material. It's a drop in the ocean, given billions of tons which were produced in the 1950s, when plastics took everyday life by storm.
For a long time, nobody was concerned by the amount of the waste produced, although environmentalists and experts who monitored the curve showing the waste production increase timidly sounded the alarm.
The recent years have been a period of intensive work on controlling the amount of plastic produced and sensible management of the material which has already become waste.

One of the ideas is to market an alternative material which, to a significant extent, will have similar properties to the plastic we know. This is due to the fact that plastic, apart from being an inconvenient type of waste, is a material of unique properties. It’s light, can be easily molded, is safe for users, durable, but also can be reused, if it becomes waste.
Scientists have created bioplastic!
We come across it in our everyday life more and more often. It’s used, among other things, to make thin single-use pouches, cutlery, plates and even packaging for short-term storage of non-food items. However, year in year out more and more plastic is produced, no regulations affect it, and consequently, a huge area for misuse has been created.
Although the European Commission has issued a communication on a responsible approach to biodegradable, naturally derived and compostable plastics, these are not binding documents.

What is a bioplastic anyway?
We have three types of bioplastic on the market – biodegradable derived from plants or crude oil and non-degradable created from plants.
Two types of this plastic are the most popular on the market – PLA (polylactide) and PHA, produced with the help of bacteria.
The fist one – PLA is usually made of sugar cane and corn. Although manufacturers assure that it’s compostable, in fact right conditions need to be created for it to biodegrade. If they aren’t created – bioplastic waste will linger in landfills or water for years, thus making heaps of rubbish or floating waste islands bigger.
The European Union forbids calling this material biodegradable, as only a few facilities are able to ensure conditions enabling its decomposition to the compost form. PLA is decomposed by specific enzymes in specific temperature, as well as right humidity ensuring a specific level of oxygen.
PLA composting is so complicated, and making an industrial installation so expensive and unprofitable that bioplastic waste is incinerated.
Not only is the end of products made of PLA controversial.
Its beginning is also raising more and more concerns.
The corn and sugarcane crops that are to become the building blocks of the eco-plastic are mostly located outside Europe, where EC regulations don’t apply. In Brazil, forests are logged to cultivate those plants, which reduces filtering CO2 from air. Pesticides are used to cultivate plants for bioplastic which poison the soil and, at a later stage, also the groundwater. These plants are sometimes genetically modified for increased resilience, better and faster growth, and when it comes down to it, the sheer water consumption to irrigate them is disproportionate to the gains for the planet that are achieved by giving up classic plastics.
The vision of such crops definitely can’t be associated with protection of the environment, and it’s just the first stage of production of eco(sic!)-plastic.
The following stages include: harvesting, repeated transportation of plants, then preparation of the pulp and ready-made product. The very fact that the crops are located far from Europe, and being aware of the fact that it is mainly that continent that is the recipient of these products, gives us an idea of how many exhaust fumes are emitted to the environment in the name of its protection.

Producing classic plastic requires adding a number of enriching substances to improve its properties. These include plasticizers, hardeners, substances that inhibit electrostatics, increase UV resistance, not to mention colorants and decorative elements.
The analysis of PLA products which are present on the market suggests that they aren’t free from additives either. “Teraz Środowisko” portal says that “Researchers looked at 43 different bioplastic products, including cutlery, chocolate wrappers, beverage bottles and wine stoppers. - Eighty per cent of them contained over 1,000 various chemicals. Some of them – as many as 2,000 – says Prof. Martin Wagner of the Norwegian University of Science and technology.  
The results are really alarming due to the fact that we don’t really know what PLA contains, and what influence it may have on the users’ health. In some of the substances, the so-called forever chemicals were detected, which we only know that they shouldn’t be present in food packaging, cosmetics or products intended to be in contact with food or in toys.
Forever chemicals owe their name to the fact that they are substances whose decomposition is really complicated and lengthy.
Unfortunately, the voice promoting 'eco-plastic' and its 'environmental neutrality' is getting louder than that of scientists and environmental experts who warn against hurrah-optimism.

The second variety of bioplastic is one that has almost all characteristics consistent with classic petroleum-based plastic, and is referred to as Biobased PET, Biobased PE, or PEF.
Ethanol extracted from plants is used in its production, and its origin is similar to that of the bioplastic discussed above.
Although it’s said that it comes from renewable sources, this is a somewhat controversial claim, since the plants, water or energy used for it don’t return to nature in any way.
That material doesn’t disturb the recycling stream of the classic plastic.
In view of recent reports saying that even Arab sheiks have admitted that we need to focus on renewable energy sources and reduce oil production, it may turn out that plant-based plastic, whether made from biomass or plant-derived ethanol, will become more and more common. However, without clear rules and laws meticulously regulating every step in the production and disposal of these plastics, we will replace one problem, being petroleum plastic waste, with another one, i.e. the same waste, but from a different source.
The third type of bioplastic is biodegradable plastics, but created on the basis of petroleum - PBAT, or PCL, which, in the above-mentioned context of the retreat from its extraction, isn’t even worth mentioning.
What we should be, however, aware of is the fact that no two plastics are the same, and that not every “bio” prefix guarantees that the material is friendly for the planet.