Plastics Made From Sugar, Seaweed or Corn: Saint or Sinner?

Published & originally written for Eco Warrior Princess.

It seems that the world is finally waking up to the destruction of our over-consumption of plastic. Some states in Australia have now banned the bag, France banned disposable cutlery last year and yesterday the UK banned products containing microbeads.

Even though we know plastic is bad for the environment, it’s still everywhere. For the last 50 years, plastics have dominated every industry, from food through to beauty. Plastic was produced as a cheap synthetic alternative to non-renewable oil (petroleum). It has since become an integral part of life (laptops, clothing, glasses…) and the world relies heavily on the material. The fact is, plastic is a useful material with useful lightweight and durable properties. So durable, that a plastic bottle can take up to 1000 years to decompose.

With plastic pollution and global warming at an all-time high (I have the sweat marks to prove it), there is a rising demand for plastic alternatives. Bioplastics have become increasingly popular over the last decade, sourced from living organisms (plants) rather than petroleum. On first glance, bioplastics seem to be an ideal eco alternative. Plants such as corn and sugarcane regenerate quickly, they are cheap to produce and don’t contain synthetic toxins. There are however heavy criticisms of bioplastics including the potential impacts on farming, lack of recyclability and confusing marketing. I looked into three bioplastics that can be used commercially: sugar, seaweed, and corn.

Plastics Made From Sugar, Seaweed and Corn- Climate Solution or Climate Problem?

Give me some sugar

Using sugarcane to produce ‘bioplastic’ is currently a popular choice in the packaging world. It’s a viable eco alternative for bags, takeaway food containers and even straws due to its chemical properties being similar to those of plastic. It’s currently used by the global beverages giant Coca-Cola in PlantBottle™ Packaging in over 29 percent of the company’s packaging in North America and eight percent globally. The PlanetBottle is not fully plant-based and still contains a high level of petroleum-based PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate). It does, however, show the right move in an eco-conscious direction for a global company worth roughly $188 billion.

The use of this innovative, more sustainable packaging has saved the equivalent annual emissions of more than 365,000 metric tons of potential carbon dioxide emissions. For perspective, this is equivalent to the annual emissions produced by more than 77,000 cars…’ – Coca-Cola website, 2018.

BioPak is a company based in Australia, also utilising sugar cane to produce ‘plastic’ packaging.  BioPak uses the pulp from sugarcane called Bagasse, which is lightweight, cheap and biodegradable to produce one-use coffee cups, plates, and cutlery. It is also durable for freezing and heating, with no toxins, making it ideal for packaging. The company also focuses on the life cycle, ensuring all products can be composted or recycled to avoid landfill. Unfortunately, the responsibility to compost is on the consumer and therefore without action BioPak items may just end up in landfill.

I sea you 

It’s ironic to use a species from the ocean, to help protect the ocean but it is possible. Using a species of algae as packaging is less mainstream than sugar cane currently, yet startup group Evoware in Indonesia is working on it.

We use seaweed as a raw material…our products are eco-friendly, biodegradable or even edible and healthy for the body. Our impact is not just on the environment but also on the livelihood of seaweed farmers.” – David Christian, Co-Founder EvoWare, website 2018.

Seaweed-based packaging is a particularly interesting product as it dissolves in warm water, yet has a shelf life of two years without preservatives. It is perfect for products such as food wraps and sachets. The only issue may be that it’s more expensive than petroleum-based plastic, yet the demand for eco-friendly products is increasing.

So corny 

Polylectic acid (Pla) is a popular product made from genetically modified corn, produced by US company NatureWorks and identical in appearance to plastic. In 2005, American retail giant Wal-Mart switched to Pla plastic packaging and McDonald’s have since followed. According to The Guardian however, in 2008, Pla can actually be very damaging to the environment. Peter Skelton from Wrap told The Guardian,”Just because it’s biodegradable does not mean it’s good. If it goes to landfill it breaks down to methane“. Pla is also extremely identical in appearance to recyclable plastic that there are reports of contamination in recycling plants.

To bio or not? 

There are more bioplastics available and I’m sure the list will keep growing over the next decade. It is positive that bioplastic alternatives have gone mainstream and global corporations are attempting to be more environmentally conscious. This trend does, however, need to be maneuvered with care and words such as ‘biodegradable’ and ‘bio-based’, don’t necessarily mean better for the environment. The world’s excessive consumption of plastics can also not simply be replaced. First and foremost there needs to be a conscious change in everyone’s lifestyles. Consumers, corporations, and governments need to work together to ensure there is a reduction in plastic use and environmentally friendly alternatives available.

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