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Bioplastics are commonly promoted as a "green" alternative to regular plastics, but it's much more complicated than that. Bioplastics can refer to a number of different kinds of materials only some of which are compostable, and only under industrial, high-temperature composting conditions. In addition, bioplastics are not accepted for recycling in most, if not all, recycling programs.

To handle discarded bioplastics in a way that is more environmentally sustainable than regular plastics, they require specific equipment and infrastructure that is not yet commonly available.

origins of bioplastics
defining bioplastics
not all biodegradable plastics are compostable
biodegradable and compostable product claims
problems with using bioplastics
why NYC can't recycle or compost bioplastics

plastics recyclability
sorting recyclables
recycling plastics in nyc
helpful links about manufacturing plastics

Origins of Bioplastics

Bioplastics were introduced during the 1980's. The idea was to make plastic items that are commonly discarded in landfills degradable so that they would disintegrate and take up less space. This idea itself failed because it didn't account for the fact that modern landfills are sealed with impermeable protective liners. Little or no air, moisture, and sunlight penetrate landfills, and not much material actually breaks down.

Another intention of manufacturing bioplastics was to reduce the use of petrochemicals to make plastics by replacing them with resin produced from renewable source materials. However, most biodegradable plastics currently available are still made from starch that is blended with petroleum polymers.

Today, the most common uses of bioplastics are for packaging, such as biodegradable plastic bags, compostable waste collection bags, and biodegradable or compostable food packaging, utensils, and serviceware.

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Defining Bioplastics

The term "bioplastics" has been used widely to describe two concepts, which can lead to confusion: bio-based plastics and biodegradable plastics.

Bio-based plastics refers to plastics that are made partly or wholly from renewable raw materials. Bio-based plastics are made from renewable resources, such as cellulose, vegetable oils, sugar or starch. Wood, corn, potato, wheat, tapioca, and rice are some of the sources of resin for bio-based plastics. Bio-based plastics are not automatically bio-degradable, but can be so designed.

Biodegradable plastics refer to plastics that are susceptible to degradation by microorganisms. This differs from other forms of degradation, such as photo-degradation (from exposure to sunlight) and oxo-degradation (from exposure to high temperature and humidity). Biodegradable plastics can be made from either renewable or petrochemical (fossil fuel) resources. They can also be made from a blend of renewable and petrochemical sources (starch-blend base) to achieve various performance properties.

When you encounter the term bioplastics, be sure to investigate which of these meanings applies. Note that many bioplastics are both bio-based and biodegradable.

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Not All Biodegradable Plastics are Compostable

All compostable plastics are bioplastics, but not all bioplastics are compostable.

Venn diagram: compostable is interseciton of bio-based with bio-degradable plastics

Biodegradable plastics must undergo degradation resulting from the action of naturally occurring microorganisms such as bacteria.

Compostable plastics must further meet the following two requirements:

  • They must biodegrade at a rate comparable to yard trimmings, food scraps, and other compostable organic materials.
  • They must disintegrate fully and leave no large fragments or toxic residue.

In short, a biodegradable plastic cannot be called compostable if it breaks down too slowly, or it if leaves toxic residue or distinguishable fragments.

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Biodegradable and Compostable Product Claims

If you encounter a manufacturer that claims their products are biodegradable or compostable, check to see if they are certified by any standards organization, and what certification standards or test methods they used.

Biodegradable: The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) leaving NYCWasteLess has issued guidelines for environmental marketing claims leaving NYCWasteLess that define when a product label can advertise that the product is biodegradable. According to FTC, claims that a product is degradable, biodegradable, or photodegradable must be substantiated with "competent and reliable scientific evidence that the entire product or package will completely break down and return to nature, i.e., decompose into elements found in nature within a reasonably short period of time after customary disposal."

"compostable" labelCompostable: A number of international standards organizations have established official standards and testing methods for compostable products. In the United States, the U.S. Composting Council leaving NYCWasteLess worked with the Biodegradable Products Institute leaving NYCWasteLess to establish a labeling program to certify compostable products. Products can be labeled with the compostable logo if they meet official standards of performance set by the American Society of Testing and Materials (ASTM) leaving NYCWasteLess.

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Problems with Using Bioplastics

It does not make sense to switch to bioplastics unless you have a plan to properly deal with them once you are finished using them. At this time, the ability to handle bioplastics in a way that is more environmentally sustainable than regular plastics poses significant challenges.

Bioplastics require specific equipment and infrastructure that is not yet commonly available. Unless you make arrangements with a private company to collect and transport them to a facility where they can be composted using industrial, high-temperature conditions, they must be discarded as trash.

Most bioplastics cannot be easily composted. Most compostable plastics require high-temperature conditions achievable only in a commercial or industrial composting facility to successfully decompose. There are as few as 113 to 200 industrial-grade composting facilities across the U.S. today. Transporting compostable plastics to these facilities, which might be far away, poses logistical and financial challenges.

If you want to compost bioplastic items yourself in your own compost bin, you must make sure that the bioplastics you choose will decompose under home composting conditions. The vast majority do not.

Bioplastics cannot be recycled with regular plastics. Bioplastics look nearly identical to conventional PETE plastics, and it's nearly impossible to tell the difference between them in order to separate them out. If they remain mixed together, bioplastics contaminate existing recycling streams because they are made of substances that are incompatible with regular plastics in the recycling process.

There are expensive new technologies that make it possible to sort out bioplastics from conventional plastic recyclables. However, sorting facilities have little incentive to purchase this advanced equipment, because the market share for bioplastics is still relatively small, compared to the total secondary market for plastics.

Bioplastics do not easily degrade in landfills. They are designed to degrade in in-vessel industrial high temperature composting systems, not passively in landfills. This renders bioplastics not much different to regular plastics in terms of the space they take up in landfills.

Rather than buying biodegradable or compostable plastics, the best option at this time is to try to find alternatives that reduce your use of plastics altogether. For waste prevention tips, see waste less in nyc.

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Why NYC Can't Recycle or Compost Bioplastics

(2014 UPDATE: DSNY accepts certified compostable bags and products from buildings with NYC Organics Collection ONLY.)

If you want to purchase bioplastic trays, cups, utensils, or other products for an event or for your school or institutional cafeteria, be aware that the NYC Department of Sanitation will NOT be able to collect them for recycling or composting. Here's why:

First, bioplastics are considered contamination (trash) if collected with the City's designated recyclable materials (metal, glass, plastics & cartons) because they interfere with the recycling process of these other items. The recycling processor that Sanitation contracts with is not able to handle bioplastics that are mixed in with traditional plastics.

Second, Sanitation only composts NYC's organic leaves, yard waste, and Christmas trees. We do not have the facilities to carry out industrial-scale anaerobic in-vessel composting, as would be needed to compost bioplastics.

Finally, Sanitation does not provide special collections of small amounts of theoretically recyclable or compostable material of any kind that are not already part of our City's recycling and yard waste collection programs (see what to recycle with Sanitation). The high costs and negative environmental impacts associated with sending dedicated trucks out to collect small amounts of different materials prevent Sanitation from responding in this manner.

Consequently, if you want to spend the premium cost to purchase bioplastics, please understand that you must either dispose of them with regular trash, or arrange privately for their collection and composting.

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