Plastics have recently become the “bad guy” of materials, mainly because they don’t degrade easily or quickly. People throw away plastic and clog landfills or create unsightly trash. This has caused major problems for many wildlife. Marine animals, in particular, often get tangled up in plastic waste. Even worse, tiny plastic particles (” microplastics “) can damage the digestive systems of the animals that eat them.
As a species, humans aren’t very good at dealing with the amount of plastic waste we produce. However, plastic is a very useful material! You may be surprised to learn that plastic isn’t all bad. Let’s look at the useful aspects of plastic.
‘Bio-derived’ plastics are plastic materials that come from plant crops such as sugar cane. This contrasts with traditional plastics such as polyvinylchloride and polyethylene, which are products of the petrochemical industry. Some (though not all) bio-derived plastics are also biodegradable, so these two issues are related. However, being able to get plastic materials from renewable sources rather than fossil fuels can potentially make plastics more sustainable.
However, (as always!) there are caveats. Growing crops for producing bioplastics can use a considerable amount of land and resources. It can therefore be difficult to calculate whether this is actually more or less damaging to the environment than traditional plastic. Arguably, burning a starch-based plastic releases carbon into the air that the plant captured as it grew. This may be less damaging than burning coal/oil that had previously spent millennia underground; however, in practice the case for/against is not always clear.