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bioplastic

Contributor(s): Matthew Haughn

A bioplastic is a substance made from organic biomass sources, unlike conventional plastics which are made from petroleum.

Bioplastics are made through a number of different processes. Some use a microorganism to process base materials, such as vegetable oils, cellulose, starches, acids and alcohols.

While almost all bioplastics produce less carbon dioxide in production than conventional plastics, they are not necessarily completely green. The methods by which their base materials are grown and the processing involved both impact their product footprint. Many bioplastics also release carbon dioxide or monoxide when biodegrading. Nevertheless, their overall environmental impact is typically lower than that of conventional plastics, and as oil costs rise, their cost becomes more and more competitive.

Some biodegradable bioplastics can break down in 180 days, given the right conditions. Others are not biodegradable at all. This capacity is desirable, for example, for outdoors applications where longevity and a reduced carbon footprint in production may be the goals.

Bioplastics, like petroleum-based ones, differ in make up to address different needs. The bioplastics used to make disposable cutlery, food containers, grocery bags, electronics casings and conductive bioplastics for electronics are all very different from one another.

Bioplastics were mainly developed in an effort to find a replacement for conventional plastics whose problems include:

  • They can take thousands of years to decompose.
  • Plastics are a major contributor to landfills and pollution, and especially problematic to sea life.
  • Conventional plastics are made from a non-renewable resource, petroleum, which is increasing in cost as it becomes more scarce.
  • Toxic and carcinogenic chemicals are used in their production, such as BPA and many other plasticizers.
  • Plastics have a large carbon footprint in both production and recycling.
This was last updated in January 2014

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