Here’s How Ensia Could Improve the Discussion on Bioplastics

A recent article from an outlet called Ensia asks whether bioplastics are better for the environment than conventional plastics. While the article touches on many aspects of the current state of bio-based plastics and materials, it never provides an adequate answer to the central question it raises.

Ensia’s stated mission is “to motivate and empower people around the world to create a more sustainable future by sharing stories and igniting conversations across sectors, geographies, ideologies, and disciplines.” The Plant Based Products Council is also a solutions-oriented organization that views plant-based products as part of a holistic approach to combatting the wide range of waste management and environmental issues we face today. That’s why we want to engage with outlets like Ensia to ensure that the discourse is balanced, and that all perspectives are included in the conversation.

Any discussion on the pros and cons of bio-based plastics or packaging materials should recognize that we live in a world where petroleum-based plastics are the status quo. Advocates for the use of more plant-based products realize that, in any case, disruption of the status quo is no small task and often presents challenges of its own. But we also recognize that we must evaluate the efficacy of plant-based products within the context of the world as it is – that is, a world full of conventional plastics.

The stated premise of Ensia author Anja Krieger’s article would lead the reader to believe that this is her starting point as well. But while the article correctly raises important distinctions and nuances about bioplastics, it ultimately fails to draw the conclusions suggested by this comparison.

What Ensia Gets Right

Ms. Krieger provides a thorough discussion of bioplastics and raises some important questions about their effect on the environment, and about what changes we need to make to our waste management infrastructure to truly reap the benefits of plant-based materials.

Ms. Krieger argues, and we agree, that a switch to bio-based plastics is not going to solve the plastics problem on its own. Not every country or locale has the composting infrastructure in place to process these products, and we should also welcome alternative solutions that reduce our need for packaging materials in the first place.

As Ms. Krieger rightly points out, consumers should understand that bio-based products, whether they claim to be biodegradable or compostable, require certain conditions to break down. This means they need to be disposed of properly in order to achieve the benefits they promise. As she writes, consumers should “check the label” to find out “[w]here and how” a product is supposed to be disposed.

Polylactic acid (PLA), for instance, requires specific composting conditions to break down that are currently achievable generally only in municipal composting facilities. Ms. Krieger writes at length about issues with PLA biodegradation in marine environments, but PLA was not designed to biodegrade in seawater, and outside of false/misleading labeling practices, its producers make no such claims.

Happily, she also discusses some exciting and innovative bio-based materials currently being used, including compostable bags used to collect organic waste and mulching films for agriculture. There are countless exciting bio-based products out there, many of which can be found on our database.

Problems with the Ensia Article

Let’s start with the main issue. While Ms. Krieger devotes a lot of space to the limitations and challenges associated with bio-based products, she never directly compares them with those of petroleum-based plastics. Instead, she inaccurately concludes “bioplastics are still plastics.” But this fails to mark crucial distinctions.

Although Ms. Krieger writes that bio-based plastics “can reduce the demand for fossil fuels to make conventional plastics,” she misses an even larger point: bio-based plastics are made from plants, which remove existing carbon from the atmosphere. Additionally, producing these bio-based feedstocks requires energy from the sun, while fossil-fuel extraction and petrochemical production often utilize extensive additional fossil fuels to power their operations.

Ms. Krieger points to research that “suggests” that chemicals used in biodegradable or bio-based plastic products “might have adverse effects” on human health or other organisms, as if there are not comparable concerns regarding petrochemical based plastics. Further, these claims appear to be based on limited, preliminary findings and not a mature body of robust research. Additionally, the article provides no evidence that materials used in the life cycle of bioplastics are of greater concern than those found in traditional plastics.

Ms. Krieger also insinuates that producers of bioplastics are misleading consumers to believe the materials can biodegrade in any and all environments. But no one is making that claim, and consumer confusion related to disposal practices extends far beyond bioplastics, as highlighted in a recent Grocery Manufacturers Association report. The dire need for consumer education on best practices for waste disposal is clear, regardless of the material in question.

Ms. Krieger’s ideals are laudable, but we shouldn’t allow a utopian world to be the enemy of a better one. We cannot completely eliminate plastic waste. But bio-based plastics can move us in a more sustainable direction even if they present some challenges – ones for which producers and policy-makers are working to find solutions. We welcome a continued discussion on these issues, but it should be based on claims that supporters of bio-based materials are actually making, not straw man arguments.