Although the biodegradable plastics (bioplastics) industry has been on the verge of commercial success for years, the quality, price, and availability of such items have been major drawbacks limiting such products to niche markets until more recently. With increased demands for alternatives to plastics from big time corporations, including Wal-Mart, producers have stepped up to the plate.
But how does switching over to a “biodegradable” plate or fork here and there really make that big of a difference? Well, for starters, a whopping 10 percent of America’s oil consumption goes to the plastics industry alone. These little, everyday items we can’t live without are filling up our landfills, polluting our oceans, endangering animals and sea life, and produced in facilities that waste tons of water and release harmful toxins into the air.
You would think recycling more would help solve the problem, but it’s actually not as beneficial to recycle your plastics and papers as much as you may think. Not to mention, Americans recycle less than 2 percent of the total plastic waste typically generated in year. The options of getting rid of all these convenient disposables we take for granted and overuse on a daily basis aren’t so eco-friendly. These options include throwing the waste into burgeoning landfills, incineration (polluting our atmosphere), or recycling, which includes a series of bleaching and sanitation processes that generate tons of water waste and pollution.
Bioplastics, or PLA (poly-lactic acid), on the other hand, can be recycled to be used over and over again and the process in doing so is much more eco-friendly. And since the price of oil is so volatile, bioplastics made from renewable resources (crops, starches, etc..) are gaining some clout in today’s market, pulling starches from the Midwest versus oil from the Middle East.With some companies creating products that compete with the prices of traditional plastics, the industry is expected to explode in upcoming years.
Remember the biodegradable Sun Chips bag that was too noisy for consumers to make the switch? After that idea was trashed, Frito-Lay recently developed a new, more silent, version of the bag. So not only are bioplastics companies fixing prices, but also fixing any potential product quality criticisms. Working with big names like Frito-Lay is setting trends and industry standards we can expect to see in all areas of food service throughout the country.
One new company in San Diego, C-Stone LLC, is working to fix bioplastic product quality and price by using a proprietary blend of plants and limestone (calcium carbonate). They say the limestone blend makes products heat resistant, more durable, and cheaper–all of which are common problems the industry has faced for the last decade.
The next challenge the industry faces, in my opinion, is getting waste facilities on board. While it is still a lot more beneficial to use plastics made from renewable resources versus plastics made from petroleum, most people will end up just throwing bioplastics away or recycling them in the wrong bins. Recycling facilities now face a challenge of separating the bioplastics from the regular plastics. Some companies, such as Biocor, are creating a market that acts as the end user for all PLA. Essentially, Biocor capitalizes on PLA waste by buying it back, aggregating and processing it so it can be put back on the market.
If we were to get really smart, companies like this would be working with waste facilities and bioplastic developers to create an endless cycle of bioplastic materials, all while reducing our carbon footprint. However, it’s also a matter of getting legislation to work in favor of these companies and educating the general public. In Seattle, for example, all businesses involved in foodservice are required to find alternatives to plastic products (of almost every kind of disposable) by this July. The only requirement is that the products are Cedar Grove Certified, meaning that they are guaranteed to break down (degrade) at the local composting facility in Cedar Grove, WA.
In some uber-green centers, special green-colored bioplastics bins are set up in addition to the blue recycling bins and regular trash cans, but I’ve noticed people taking irregularly long pauses to figure out what goes where. Others think “biodegradable” means you can throw these items outside or into a backyard compost. Wrong! Bioplastics only break down in commercial composting facilities, which are sometimes hard to come by in some cities. So clearly, there’s a bit of an education problem to be dealt with before all these products become completely consumer friendly.
As someone with experience in marketing for bioplastics, I’ve noticed that even the companies who have tried to make the switch in the past are hesitant to give the new and improved market of bioplastics a shot again. So many of the former products have been criticized for quality or price that it’s difficult to get those eco-friendly companies back on board. And some weren’t even completely biodegradable/compostable as they had claimed. Fortunately, we’re starting to prove that the market has changed. The new bioplastics are often even better and cheaper than traditional plastics. Now the only problem is getting legislation going, working with waste facilities, changing the mindset of all food service businesses, and educating the general public.
With the new developments in this market, expect to see huge growth over the next decade and start thinking twice about how much plastic waste you’re generating on a daily basis…
Some nasty facts about the plastics industry:
- Over 600 million plastic, petroleum-based water bottles end up in landfills each day (almost 40 billion annually). Manufacturing bottled water uses over 1.5 million barrels of oil per year. That’s enough oil to fuel 100,000 cars for that same year!
- Society’s consumption rate is now estimated at well over 500 billion plastic bags annually, or almost 1 million per minute. Single use plastic bags accumulate and persist on our planet for up to 1,000 years.
- An estimated 14 billion pounds of trash—much of which is plastic—is dumped into our oceans every year.
- Over 46,000 pieces of plastic debris float on every square mile of ocean, killing uncountable numbers sea creatures. A five-year long study by the Ocean Conservancy found that small plastic bags made up about 9 percent of the debris found along various U.S. coasts.
- Recycling 1 ton of plastic saves 7.4 cubic yards of landfill space. However, Americans only recycle 1-2% of the 10.5 million tons of plastic waste typically generated in a year.
- Every year we make enough plastic film to shrink-wrap the state of Texas.