With The Right Mindset, Bioplastics Can Be Part of the Solution

If this myth-busting blog occasionally sounds repetitive, it’s because many of the news outlets that wade into the discussion of bioplastics tend to deploy the same few talking points and “hot takes.” A recent piece in Gizmodo is no exception, claiming to present “The Truth About Bioplastics” but instead repeating the usual misapprehensions and distortions paired with undue pessimism and speculation. 

PBPC understands that any new and innovative idea is bound to be met with criticism, and welcomes a good-faith discussion of those critiques. But these pessimistic takes continue to leave out the industry’s perspective, ignoring what groups like PBPC are doing to foster an environment that will enable the realization of the full potential of these innovative products. 

So without further ado, here is what Gizmodo gets wrong:  

STRAW MAN: Producers of certified plant-based products and materials are not trying to deceive the public. It is a simple truth that bioplastics, made from renewable sources like plants, have environmental advantages over traditional plastics made from fossil fuels.  We recognize that the shift away from legacy plastics and toward a circular economy is multifaceted and requires change from all stakeholders. But, with the right infrastructure in place, plant-based products are an environmentally responsible alternative to “regular old plastic.” This has been confirmed by various NGOs and international groups, including the United Nations Environment Program and the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD). 

NOT TRUE: While “greenwashing” is certainly a real phenomenon, producers cannot and should not be blamed for a lack of infrastructure to support the environmentally friendly disposal of their products. Advertising products as compostable, when they are in fact compostable, is not in and of itself misleading. We recognize that there is a need for clearer labeling, consumer education, and improved composting infrastructure, so that all compostable materials can end up in the proper facilities.

OPTIMISM IS KEY: We agree that in order to reap the rewards of plant-based materials, we need to grapple with some present challenges, including infrastructure and labeling. But rather than dismiss these materials outright, groups like ours, many media outlets, including Gizmodo, and public officials have the power to educate consumers on the efficacy of these materials and encourage an industry-wide evolution to facilitate the proper disposal of these materials.

MISLEADING: With improved composting infrastructure, compostable municipal waste currently going to landfills—including all organic materials—can be diverted to value-adding composting facilities. From there, these materials are converted to compost that improves soil health, water quality, and carbon storage in soil. Further, it is a false assertion to claim that those compostable plastics that do end up in landfills will break down in a manner that is harmful to the environment. Compostable plastics, such a PLA, need oxygen to break down, and in the anaerobic environment of a landfill, there is insufficient oxygen to allow for compostable plastics to break down. PLA, much like any type of traditional plastic, is generally stable in a landfill and does not contribute any significant methane to landfill air emissions.

FACT CHECK: Research from the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Wildlife Foundation’s Bioplastic Feedstock Alliance confirms that the production of bio-based plastics will not have a significant impact on agricultural resources used to grow food. In addition, FAO statistics note that the total land use for bioplastic production is less than 0.05% of global arable land.

SLEIGHT OF HAND: Gizmodo muddies the waters in comparing our broken plastic recycling infrastructure with plant-based materials. It is true that the current recycling system faces challenges. As it stands, of the 350 million tons of plastic generated a year, only nine percent are being recycled. Additionally, many of the products that are “recyclable” cannot be processed due to contamination from food waste – a problem that could be tackled with increased use of compostable plant-based products. These problems tell us that change is necessary, but they certainly do not indicate that a shift to better plastics is impossible.

WE AGREE: There’s room for improvement on all fronts. At PBPC, we have made it our mission to promote improvements to composting infrastructure, labeling practices, and consumer education. We see all of these steps as a path toward a more circular economy where plant-based products can play a critical role in reducing the environmental impact of legacy plastics.