Image via National Geographic
Bioplastics / bio-based
Bioplastics or bio-based plastics have emerged onto the market as a viable alternative to traditional plastic.
Bioplastics are derived from renewable plant materials or microorganisms, compared to non-renewable petroleum-based plastics. There is some discussion around the environmental and social impacts of using plants for bioplastic instead of food.
Depending on how it’s made and contrary to popular belief, not all bioplastics are biodegradable or compostable and particularly not at home (see Biodegradable below) and therefore can end up in landfill anyway. If the bioplastic container is compostable, it will most likely need commercial composting due to the necessity of high heat to break it down. This space is still expanding however, with more innovative materials to be developed. Watch this space!
Biodegradable vs compostable?
These words are very similar descriptions, with slightly different processes.
Biodegradable is the natural ability to completely decompose as part of a biological process that happens in the environment by microorganisms and no human intervention, i.e. an apple decomposing, exerting only natural materials back into the atmosphere.
Biodegradable is a bit of a fuzzy word when used in packaging or products as there is no specific time frame or legal definition on this process, for example plastic breaks down eventually after thousands of years and therefore can technically be labelled as biodegradable.
It should also say FULLY biodegradable, otherwise, some products may just break down into smaller plastic pieces. Biodegradable should therefore not necessarily be trusted on packaging to be the environmentally positive choice unless it is also certifiably compostable.
Composting is a human-controlled process of decomposing something, in labelling to generally mean commercially unless stated as home composting.
An added bonus of composting is also the by-product of rich soil. Compostable products, such as bioplastics, are commercially compostable i.e. need to be sent to a facility to be composted and not thrown in a home organics bin (unless stated as home compostable).
Home Compostable means that they can be thrown into an organics bin or worm farm. Some areas have an organics bin collected by the council where home compostable items can go. Products which have compostable certification (either commercial or home) are the best to look out for.
This is an exciting and expanding area of materials development, with further materials such as fungus packaging being developed to be fully compostable at home. Watch this space!