So we're all getting pretty darned familiar with the arguments for and against biofuels. But what about bioplastics? Since we can, theoretically, do anything with corn that we can do with petroleum, wouldn't it be better to do it with corn?
Well, not necessarily. BioPlastics are a mixed bag, and considerably more complicated than biofuels. Mostly, this is because there are about two dozen different ways to create bioplastic, and every one has different properties and capabilities.
- Why make stuff out of it when you can eat it? There are lots of hungry people in the world, and it seems a little odd to be making disposable cups out of the stuff when it could be being eaten. Though bioplastic definitely isn't causing an increase in the price of food, it's not impossible to imagine it.
- You can't always recycle it. Because bioplastics come in dozens of varieties, there's no way to make sure you're getting the right chemicals in the recycling vat. And, in general, the solution is compost instead of re-entering the supply stream.
- It could make plastic recycling impossible. Even worse than not being recyclable itself, if it creeps into the recycling stream (which is likely, since it doesn't look any different) it can introduce new chemicals that make the final recycled product weaker or even unusable.
- Compostable doesn't mean compostable. If you toss a bioplastic fork into your compost and assume it'll be dirt in a few months, you'll be sorely disappointed. While bioplastic is (sometimes) compostable, it requires high intensity, high heat commercial composting.
- It's never made from organic corn, and generally made from genetically modified corn. And while EcoGeek doesn't have a problem with genetic modification, many other environmentally aware people do.
- It makes low quality plastic. Instead of solving the problem of the disposable society, bio-plastics generally can only be made into disposable items. They're having problems even making transparent bioplastic that's strong enough to hold water for a few months.
- It's good marketing, but bad honesty. It's very easy to have bioplastic cups or bags or forks. But it's very difficult to figure out what that means. Because there are so many different types of bioplastic, you never really know what you're getting into. Maybe it's compostable, maybe it's not. Maybe it's recyclable, maybe it's not.
- What's wrong with storing carbon in landfills? Plastic has gotten a bad rap, for poisoning babies and strangling sea lions. But if it is used properly and ends up in the landfill, I don't see what the problem is. Creating durable products with petroleum is certainly much preferred to burning it. And while plastics factories are big polluters, bio plastics factories though better, don't get us clean either.
None of that is to say that bioplastics might not reign supreme some day, they certainly have advantages as well. They're infinitely producible and safer to burn. But until a durable, recyclable and cheap option starts to win this crazy format war, I'm staying away.