The backlash against plastic got into full swing the past few years, and it's not hard to see why. Our social media feeds are crowded with images of sea creatures dying entangled in trash, and many municipalities are enacting bans against bags and bottles. We have clearly woken up to the dangers of a tsunami of single-use plastics.
As any savvy businessperson could have predicted, this has led to a surge in interest in alternatives. Plant-based bioplastics are touted as environmentally friendlier options, but before you go looking for bioplastics for your home or business, beware. Claims about their current benefits are often inflated or misleading.
As recent reports from The Wall Street Journal and Ars Technica make clear, some of the world's biggest companies, such as Ikea, Lego, and Coca-Cola, have been desperately searching for workable, genuinely environmentally friendly plastic alternatives but are coming up short.
Bioplastics still have a long way to go
The first thing you need to know about bioplastics is that it's the Wild West out there. The term is unregulated, and basically no one can agree on what counts as a bioplastic. "Bioplastic is basically anything that people like to call bioplastic," Frederik Wurm, a chemist at the Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research, told Ars Technica's Troy Farah.
What most people hope it means is a plastic made from natural materials that breaks down when you dispose of it normally, and which generates less pollution from its production.
But, as Farah reports, most current bioplastics fail to clear one of these hurdles. Either they're just as polluting to produce, don't really break down unless under very specific industrial conditions, or are way too expensive to be commercially feasible. If you're considering a bioplastic alternative, the complete article, including a breakdown of the pros and cons of various options, is worth a read.
Companies are struggling to cut down on plastic
For consumers, that means you should exercise caution in regards to anything marketed as "bio" or "biodegradable" plastic. Before buying, see if plastic can be eliminated altogether. "A cultural shift in consumption attitudes is more important than finding plastic alternatives. Less overall plastic consumption should be a central focus," writes Farah.
Meanwhile, companies looking to please earth-conscious customers face serious challenges. Lego's head of environmental responsibility likens the company's efforts to find plant-based plastic alternatives to the moon landing. "When Kennedy said he wanted to put a man on the moon, lots of the technology and requirements didn't exist. We need to go out and build that," Lego's senior director of environment, Tim Guy Brooks, told WSJ.
"Ikea is also trying to move away from oil. But, so far, its only plant-based plastic product is a freezer bag," reports the same article. Coca-Cola scrapped a target to include plant-based plastics in all bottles by 2020 because of the difficulty.
All of which might appear disheartening. Clearly, we have a long way to go to when it comes to finding greener alternatives. But look at it another way and these reports offer grounds for optimism. Less than a decade ago, this issue was barely on the radar. If some of the world's biggest companies are struggling to replace plastic, at least we're confronting and investing in the problem.
"As consumer demand increases, prices drop, and new technology emerges, bioplastics -- whatever the term may eventually indicate -- are likely to become more pervasive," Farah concludes. We're also likely to find ways to reduce packaging along the way. As this Financial Times piece shows, clever startups and designers are hard at work on the problem.
So, yes, current skepticism is warranted, but the fact that we even know enough to be skeptical suggests that a greener future is in the works.