What Is Bio Plastic?

The demand for biodegradable packaging has taken off in the last few years and a growing number of businesses are sending out your takeout in bio plastic packaging. But what is this stuff that looks like plastic, feels like plastic, yet isn’t plastic?

The Difference Between Compostable and Biodegradable

Compostable plastic is plastic that can undergo a full decomposition as part of an industrial compost program. It must break down into carbon dioxide, water and biomass at the same rate as cellulose (paper) without leaving any trace of toxic residue.

Biodegradable plastic on the other hand is plastic which will biodegrade naturally from bacteria or fungi. There is no requirement for the plastic to leave no trace of toxic residue nor is there a limit on the time it may take to fully break down.

How is this different than regular plastic or Styrofoam?

Both plastic and Styrofoam are petroleum based products which, when discarded, can take hundreds of years to degrade and has the potential to leak toxic residue into ground water.

Alternative Plastics: PLA vs. Bagasse

Polylactic Acid (PLA) is similar in its aesthetic composition to regular plastic.  However PLA is made from corn, a mixture of both GMO and non-GMO, the overproduction of which has become a worldwide problem.  Mass production of corn for the variety of uses it now encompasses (from packaging to having a presence in almost every manufactured food product) has stripped land of its natural nutrients, changed soil composition with the use of synthetic fertilizers, as well as put smaller farmers out of business—or out of any other business than that of producing corn.

Bagasse products are consistent with the usability of regular plastic, however it is made from the byproduct of sugar cane production. Bagasse is considered the most desirable of the two as it is created from essentially the waste made during sugar cane production, which would otherwise be discarded in the landfill.

Do PLA and Bagasse Products Really Breakdown Faster?

PLA and Bagasse products have an estimated shelf life of two years. Both of these products will only fully decompose once put into the composting process because they need the aid of soil and other organic materials to breakdown. After the product is put into a composting system it will biodegrade within a few months.

Read more about compostable to-go containers, or read about reusable takeout containers in our Waste-Free Lifestyle column.


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