Better to recycle bioplastics?

Bioplastics, or biopolymers, are a form of plastic made from plant materials such as sugar, cellulose and starch. I’ve mentioned biopolymers in the past in relation to items such as carpet made from corn, bioplastic gift cards and even corn based cutting boards.

The idea is once you are done with the product, it can be composted – sounds like a great idea at first blush.

As mentioned in my Biodegradable, Degradable, Compostable article from a while back, bioplastics do raise some issues relating to land use, energy to create the bioplastic and carbon dioxide generation during the decomposition process.

A report just released by WRAPS (Waste & Resources Action Programme), based on assessments of hundreds of other studies, indicates that recycling of paper, cardboard, plastics and biopolymers for most indicators assessed gives more environmental benefits than other waste management options.

The study found that the limited data available so far shows the good environmental performances of mechanical and chemical recycling regarding energy demand, depletion of natural resources and climate change potential when it comes to biopolymers.

Here’s the catch – as far as I know, bioplastics are considered a “7” in terms of plastic resin code numbers (meaning “other”), which means they cannot be included in your kerbside recycling in most places. I think it’s just a case of not enough of it being around at the moment which causes challenges in terms of sorting.

Until that issue is sorted out, perhaps all things considered, bioplastics made from scratch aren’t as ” green” as a recycled petrochemical based container? Recycling plastics uses only roughly 10 percent of the energy that it takes to make a pound of petro-chemical based plastic from virgin materials.

How the carbon dioxide and other issues stack up though; I really don’t know, but without volume generated by demand, perhaps bioplastics never will be easily recycled. It’s a bit of a tricky situation.

Still, with peak oil looming and our looking to even more destructive ways to squeeze oil from the ground such as the damage being done in Canada’s tar sands projects; maybe bioplastics will become commonplace – we may not have a choice.


How paper, glass, aluminum, steel and plastic is recycled