Insights from BCC Research

Are Bioplastics Worth the Hype? New Research Says Maybe Not

Bioplastics

With rising temperatures across the globe, the prevalence of severe tropical storms and prolonged droughts, climate change is on the minds of many researchers, scientists and individuals living across the globe. As a result, the global demand for climate and eco-friendly materials and practices is exceptionally high.

Bioplastics, which are plant-based plastics, have typically been seen as more environmentally friendly than petroleum-based plastics. In reality, however, bioplastics may not actually be any less harmful to the environment than petroleum-based plastics, according to a recent study by the University of Bonn.

The study, which was published in scientific journal “Environmental Research Letters,” found that the shift to bioplastics in coming years is expected to increase greenhouse gas emissions due to global cropland expansion.

As Technology Networks reported, Dr. Neus Escobar from the Institute of Food and Resource Economics at the University of Bonn and her colleagues, Salwa Haddad, Dr. Jan Börner and Dr. Wolfgang Britz, have simulated the effects that an increased demand for bioplastics would have on major producing countries.

The study considered two scenarios: a tax on conventional plastics compared with a subsidy on bioplastics, assuming the share of bioplastics relative to total plastic consumption increases to 5% in Europe, China, Brazil and the U.S. The effects shown in the tax scenario were especially noteworthy – as fossil-based plastics became more expensive, the demand for them fell by a considerable amount and 0.08% less greenhouse gases would be released yearly. It is important to remember, however, that part of this decline is due to economic distortions, as increases in taxes slow economic growth.

The study found that, overall, it will take an extended period of time for the switch to bioplastics to pay off. This is because an enormous amount of C02 is released in the atmosphere when forests are turned to cropland to support the increase production of bioplastics. Escobar also elaborated on the effects of increased bioplastic consumption from food crops.

“Consuming bioplastics from food crops in greater amounts does not seem to be an effective strategy to protect the climate,” Escobar said. “Especially because this would trigger many other negative effects, such as rising food prices. But this would probably look different if other biomass resources were used for production, such as crop residues. We recommend concentrating research efforts on these advanced bioplastics and bring them to market.”

Additionally, the idea of bioplastics aiding in limiting ocean waste is doubtful. Escobar explained that, even though bioplastics are plant-derived, they are not always easily degradable in marine environments.

While bioplastics may not be the answer to global CO2 issues, they are a step forward in terms of reducing the fossil fuel dependency of highly industrialized regions. The researchers concluded that the way to truly preserve the environment is to limit plastic use and strictly enforce plastic recycling at large.

For information on the global market and technologies for bioplastics, refer to the report “Global Markets and Technologies for Bioplastics.”

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Written by Sarah Gallo on Jan 14, 2019 10:00:00 AM