The truth about bioplastics & their impact on the environment

bioplastics crushed into recycle sign
Photo credit: xmocb/Getty Images

If only I had a nickel for every time I saw someone post on Instagram or say in a coffee shop, “Don’t worry, it’s a compostable cup!” I’d be about as bountiful as our landfills. These compostable items are popping up everywhere, ensuring business owners and consumers alike feel good about the disposables they are carrying around. The problem is that there’s a lot of misinformation about bioplastics. Unfortunately, they are not (yet!) the perfect solution people think they are to the problem of plastic.

Much like the recycling movement allowed people to feel OK about buying products in plastic bottles, items made of bioplastics seem environmentally harmless to many consumers. But the lifecycle of these products is misrepresented. The biggest challenge? Ensuring bioplastics are disposed of properly. I chatted with sustainability expert and consultant Shannon Kenny, who broke down the challenges with these items. “Anytime you add the term ‘bio,’ ‘compostable’ or ‘plant-based’ to a product name or description, people automatically think that makes them good for the planet. But unless you have the proper facilities to process and recycle these bioplastics, they can be just as harmful to the planet as traditional plastics that are made from fossil fuels,” Kenny explained. Yikes.

So what, exactly, are bioplastics?

Let’s dive into this a bit deeper. If you’re like me from a couple of years ago, you may be under the impression that these “plant-based” cups, straws, cutlery and takeout containers decompose when they end up in a landfill. Unfortunately, that’s not at all the case. In order for these items to break down, they need the perfect storm of gases, heat and airflow that is only provided in a commercial composting facility. That means if you toss them into your home compost or into the trash, they won’t break down any faster than their plastic counterparts. And since you probably don’t have commercial composting accessible to you, you may not know what to do with the products.

MORE: Greenwashing: What it is & how to pinpoint brands that do it

Since they look like plastic, people often assume they can be recycled, which isn’t true. According to Kenny, “Consumers often dispose of bioplastics in recycling bins, which is like throwing a wrench into an engine — it messes the whole process up. When bioplastics enter the plastic recycling stream, they’re difficult to identify and separate from the other plastics, which contaminates the entire recycling process and creates a low-grade recycled plastic.”

This means if you can’t compost it, you should trash it. And that means it’s not being processed at all.

The upside to bioplastics

It’s not all doom and gloom for bioplastics, though. One way that bioplastics are more sustainable than their plastic counterparts is their beginning of life — how the items are created. Bioplastics are engineered out of either polylactic acids (PLAs), made from sugarcane and corn and other plant matter, and polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs), which are engineered from microorganisms. These materials allow the manufacturers to avoid using fossil fuels. But if the PLA is made from monoculture (when a crop is continuously grown on the same plot of land without other crops) corn, there can be disastrous implications for our planet. Monoculture crops deplete the soil and can lead to toxic runoff. Like everything else in sustainability, it’s complicated and layered when it comes to impact.

What should you actually be using?

So if plastic isn’t great, but bioplastics aren’t either, what should we use? “In terms of single-use items, better alternatives would be containers and utensils that are made from actually compostable materials like paper and bamboo. These materials (if not coated in a bioplastic), have a much better chance of breaking down in a natural environment or if they’re disposed of in a home or backyard compost,” Kenny advises. So opt for the paper straw over the compostable plastic one, for example.

Additionally, Kenny says to look for items that are home compostable instead of commercially compostable. Home compostable options are optimal because it means “the average consumer can put it in a home compost or even bury it in their backyard and it will break down,” Kenny shared. As we now know, that isn’t true of bioplastics.

With no great eco-friendly options available, where do we go from here? In the short term, we need to focus on consumer education, ensuring that consumers, as well as business owners, know about how these products really work and their shortcomings. Kenny argues that we need government and business involvement in managing the proper disposal of these products. “This responsibility should either fall on the producers of bioplastics, since they’re the ones creating these products, or on the government, since they’re the ones dealing with the after-effects and disposal issues of bioplastics,” Kenny shared.

The big bioplastics picture

In the long run, we need increased access to commercial composting. Kenny explained that municipal composting “should be as crucial to waste management systems as landfills currently are, especially since they would majorly decrease the need for the enormous landfills currently needed for waste management.” This would mean composting pick-up from outside your home and availability of composting bins for you to toss your compostable coffee cup into.

MORE: Your fear of recycling is common, according to psychology

The most sustainable solution in both the short term and the long run, though, is to avoid disposables and single-use items as much as possible. Even if they are properly composted or disposed of, the resources and energy required inevitably take a toll on the environment. The best option is to bring your own cup to the coffee shop and your own cutlery to the office to eat your salad or out to dinner at your favorite fast-casual restaurant. Say no to straws. And educate others — friends, family, and even your local coffee shop or restaurant owners — that these products aren’t as “green” as they may appear.

Decrease your plastic use even more with this macrame reusable bag. Check out the DIY tutorial below.