Breaking Down Biodegradable: UF Scientist Creates Guide to Bioplastics
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The term “bioplastics” describes plastics made of a biological source, as opposed to traditional plastics made of petroleum. But as products using bioplastics increasingly become fixtures on store shelves, consumers may not understand the various terminology used to describe them.
“These days, I get asked about bioplastics a lot,” said Maia McGuire, a University of Florida/IFAS Extension Florida Sea Grant agent based in Flagler County. “There seems to be an increased awareness of plastic being a problem and people wanting to do better. They see products labeled as ‘biodegradable,’ ‘compostable,’ ‘green’ – and they want to believe that those products are better for the environment without necessarily knowing how to research what to look for or how to interpret the labeling.”
The frequent questions inspired McGuire to publish a document on UF/IFAS Extension’s online collection, EDIS, titled “Bioplastics—a better option for the environment?,” which aims to decipher the labeling of such products.
The document delves into the subtle differences among four bioplastic varieties – cellulose acetate, bio-derived plastics, polylactic acid (PLA) and Polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) plastic – and explains the standards and guidelines set for these terms.
Below, she addresses more generally a few commonly asked questions.
What exactly are bioplastics?
“The prefix ‘bio-’ denotes that the plastic is made from a biological source, typically a plant but it can be a bacteria-based source. But ‘bioplastic’ is a huge umbrella that lots of sources fit under. If something is bioplastic, it doesn’t mean that it’s industrially compostable, or that it will rapidly biodegrade. It just means that it’s made from a biological source.”
But if it’s “compostable” or “biodegradable,” that means it will break down, right?
“Even for ‘biodegradable’ plastics, there is no standard for using that term. You could call a regular, petroleum-based plastic container ‘biodegradable’ because in a million years it might biodegrade.
“When it comes to compostable plastics, a lot of the United States doesn’t have the industrial facilities needed to process those. If the packaging says ‘biodegradable’ or ‘biocompostable’ or ‘compostable’, it should stipulate that the product meets some sort of standard (e.g. ASTM d6400). Otherwise, it may not degrade even if it is sent to an industrial composting facility.”
So what is the best option?
“Avoiding plastic as much as possible. There really isn’t a good option at this point. I think down the road, the hope is that the bacterial-based plastics, the PHA plastics, will be the best option. It’s hard to know for sure. But at this point, they’re not able to make quantities and price it such that it’s a viable option.”
I can’t avoid needing plastic for certain tasks, like collecting my pets’ waste or lining my trash bin. What do you suggest?
“I get the pet waste question a lot. I encourage people to look at the plastic bags and packaging that they are accumulating anyway: food packaging, like bread, cereal, or produce bags; plastic mailers; wrappers from toilet papers and paper towels; or newspaper bags. I challenge people to see if they can’t make do with what they are already collecting in their homes.
“Even trash bag use can be minimized, in a way. I don’t use a liner in my small bathroom containers, for example. In my office, I don’t have a trash container; instead, I walk to the shared container in the kitchen to dispose of something.”
Any final words of advice?
“Do your research and don’t just trust a label. Be prepared to investigate a little bit to understand what the claims really mean.”
The mission of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences is to develop knowledge relevant to agricultural, human and natural resources and to make that knowledge available to sustain and enhance the quality of human life. With more than a dozen research facilities, 67 county Extension offices, and award-winning students and faculty in the UF College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, UF/IFAS works to bring science-based solutions to the state’s agricultural and natural resources industries, and all Florida residents. Visit the UF/IFAS website at ifas.ufl.edu and follow us on social media at @UF_IFAS.
(Featured photo by Tyler Jones, UF/IFAS)