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It’s Easy Being Green: Bioplastic-tastic

SOURCE: AP/Michael C. York

Potatoes are a natural candidate for bioplastics because of their high starch content. High levels of potato cultivation worldwide also mean an abundant supply that can help meet the world’s plastic demand.

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Reducing plastic usage is critical to a sustainable future but plastics are undoubtedly an integral part of our daily lives. A key solution to cutting plastic use can be found in bioplastics, which are not only made from renewable resources but also biodegrade significantly quicker than conventional plastics.

Conventional plastics are made from petroleum, but bioplastics are produced using converted biomass. You’ve probably seen or heard of cornstarch-based bioplastics. These have been around for over 20 years and continue to constitute a majority market share of biodegradable plastics.

A number of other bioplastics are also emerging, however. These offer new possibilities for sustainable plastic use and give us the ability to diversify the sources of biomass that we use.

Scientists, for example, are producing bioplastics from potatoes—a natural candidate because of their high starch content. High levels of potato cultivation worldwide also mean an abundant supply that can help meet the world’s plastic demand.

Sugarcane is another crop being explored for its bioplastics potential. In fact, Proctor & Gamble, the Fortune 500 consumer goods company, recently announced that it would start marketing and producing sugarcane-derived bioplastics. The entrance of such a prominent company into the field is a boon for the potential future growth of the industry.

Perhaps the most promising—and intriguing—substitute for conventional plastic is mycelium, a compound derived from mushrooms. Mycelium produces a strong, durable polymer when introduced to certain types of organic material. Technically, mycelium isn’t “bioplastic,” but it has qualities that allow it to substitute for plastic in a number of different capacities.

For instance, “Mycobond,” a mushroom-derived material created by entrepreneurs Gavin McIntyre and Eben Bayer, is a green packaging alternative that requires 98 percent less energy to produce than conventional packaging materials. Mycobond is all-natural, self-assembling, biodegradable, and can be most commonly used as a substitute for packing materials, which are some of the most egregious sources of waste.

The sources of bioplastics are diverse, but the benefits are similar. Bioplastics require less energy to produce than conventional plastics, and they are made with renewable biomass. Conventional plastics also accumulate in landfills and take thousands of years to biodegrade while many bioplastics can and should be composted, allowing them to biodegrade much more quickly. The result is less landfill usage, less pollution, and less waste accumulation in vulnerable ecosystems as well as a greatly reduced carbon footprint.

Consider using bioplastics instead of conventional plastics if you need disposable or short-use plastic items such as bags, plasticware, or packaging material. Chances are you’ll be able to find compostable versions of those products at your own local grocery store or supermarket.

One important tip to remember, though: While all bioplastics are created from converted biomass, not all bioplastics are compostable. If you’re looking to really cut down the ecological impact of your plastic use make sure to use compostable bioplastics. Ultimately, they’re easy to find, similar in price, indistinguishable from their conventional plastic counterparts, and much less damaging to our planet.

Read more articles from the "It’s Easy Being Green" series

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