Plastic has a dirty reputation. Can bioplastics clean it up?

The bioplastics industry is booming -- but it might not be as green as you think.

Photo by Marco Bulgarelli/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Plastic has a dirty reputation. Can bioplastics clean it up?

Put down that plastic bag and pick up that Parkesine.

The English inventor Alexander Parkes is credited with creating one of the earliest forms of plant-based plastic, way back in the mid-19th century.

Parkes died in 1890, but if he were still around today, he’d be at the forefront of a serious trend.

One word: bioplastics

Troy Farah explored the ascendance of alternative plastics for Ars Technica. He found a market with major potential. Big oil companies are ramping up plastic production as consumers and governments consider a future free of fossil fuels.

A European trade group estimates that bioplastics currently make up just 1% of the 350m+ metric tons of plastic produced each year, but demand is rising rapidly.

It’s not hard to see why. Single-use items like plastic straws are going out of fashion fast — the European Parliament passed a law to ban them by 2021. Last week, Loliware, a purveyor of kelp-based plastics, snagged a $6m investment.

But it’s not easy being green

Here’s the catch: The term “bioplastic” can refer to a wide range of materials. Some of them don’t actually have a smaller carbon footprint than traditional plastics, Farah found. 

It matters if plastics are made from renewable sources. But here’s what matters more: Can those products actually biodegrade? If not, that plastic Coke bottle might still take ages to break down.

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