Plant-based Plastics: Are They Really Better For The Environment?

You are currently viewing Plant-based Plastics: Are They Really Better For The Environment?

Plant-Based Plastics – Perfect Solution Or Problem?

Following what has been called the ‘Attenborough effect’, consumers are abandoning plastic due to a growing awareness of its impact on the environment.

Consumers are making easy swaps to plastic-free products – so businesses are responding by changing the materials they use.

So-called ‘eco-friendly plastics’ are popping up everywhere – from compostable, to plant-based, to biodegradable – But what are they; how are we supposed to dispose of them; and are they too good to be true?

Plastic – miracle material or dangerous litter?

When plastic was first invented in the late 19th century, it was celebrated as a miracle material. It has helped us preserve and transport food; it has reduced the spread of disease; and it has brought us light-weight, more fuel efficient transport.

But the problem isn’t the material itself. It’s the way we use it. We waste finite fossil fuels to produce items that are used just once, sometimes for a few minutes – or just seconds.

When these items end up in the environment – whether in oceans or in landfill – they leach harmful chemicals and cause further damage to our ecosystem.

It’s no surprise that plastic is at the top of the sustainability agenda. With mounting pressure from consumers, conscious competitors and environmental groups, companies are scrambling for alternatives.

“Environmentally-friendly” plastic?

Have you heard of ‘bioplastics’ before? While it may sound eco-friendly, the meaning is quite ambiguous. If a material is a bioplastic, it means that it’s either:

  • Plant-based (made in part or completely from organic matter, e.g. sugar cane or corn starch). These plastics are not necessarily biodegradable.
  • Is biodegradable (biodegradable plastic can sometimes be made entirely from fossil fuels)
  • Is both plant-based and biodegradable

It’s important that as we move into using alternatives, we are aware of what we are consuming and how we should be discarding it. To find out more about bioplastics, check out City to Sea’s blog.

So, what exactly are plant-based plastics?

Plant-based plastic is a type of bioplastic that is created from agricultural scraps, often from corn, sugarcane, wheat or food waste. The term ‘plant-based’ refers to the source of the material itself, not how the resulting plastic will behave after it’s been thrown away.

But, there’s a catch! Only 20% of the ingredients need to be from renewable, organic materials in order for a plastic to be labelled ‘plant-based’. This means the resulting plastic could still be non-biodegradable and be made from up to 80% fossil fuels!

Not so green after all…

Disposing of plant-based plastic

Plant-based plastic, like all other types of plastic, can be designed to behave in one of three different ways in the environment:

To last forever

Non-biodegradable plastic is extremely durable and will last for years. So long, in fact, that it takes 500 years to degrade. And even then, it doesn’t fully disappear; it just breaks down into smaller and smaller particles that remain in the environment. Many types of non-biodegradable plastic are recyclable, like plastic milk cartons which are made from HDPE, or fruit punnets which are made from PET.

To biodegrade

‘Biodegradable’ plastic can be broken down completely by bacteria or other living organisms.

If a plastic is described as biodegradable, it doesn’t mean that you can throw it away anywhere. If it’s left in the wrong environment, it won’t have a chance to biodegrade and will behave in the same way as non-biodegradable plastic.

It’s a good idea to read the back of the pack to check how you can dispose of biodegradable plastics – as there are many different types and they require different conditions to biodegrade.

If in doubt, leave it out and find an alternative if you can.

To compost

Compostable plastic will decompose in either a home composting environment or in industrial composting conditions. The only plastics that can be composted are those that have met an industrial standard (EN13432) or to a home composting standard like OK Compost.

Something important to note; compostable plastic that is certified to an industrial standard will not break down properly in a home composting environment.

You can’t add compostable or biodegradable plastic to the regular recycling streams. It will disrupt the recycling process, and the whole lot becomes destined for landfill.

The future of plastic

Plant-based plastics seem attractive at first glance – but in order to not dig ourselves further into the hole of global plastic pollution, it’s important that we examine all of the options carefully. As demand grows, we hope that businesses, local councils, and individuals support the options that are best for people and for the planet.

This article originally appeared on