For sports brands, bioplastics made from sugar cane, corn, castor beans or other renewable raw materials are becoming a serious alternative to traditional petroleum-based materials. But when is bioplastic really bioplastic? And why should you know the difference between bio-based and biodegradable?
First, a very small, tiny, short lesson in chemistry. Very short. Promised.
Bioplastics are polymers made from plants or other non-fossil materials. They are always bio-based, but do not necessarily have to be biodegradable and certainly not compostable. Although they can usually be produced in a more environmentally friendly way, they will end up polluting the oceans just like conventional plastic does.
Bio-based plastics are biodegradable if they can break down into the smallest elements within 6 to 12 weeks under the individual conditions of special systems that work with industrial composting or anaerobic fermentation. Incidentally, it is different from compostable materials, which are broken down by microorganisms on a simple composting site.
Based on their capabilities, bioplastics can - and should - already replace a large part of conventional, petroleum-based plastics. Bioplastics (such as bio-polyethylene or polylactic acid) can do almost the same thing as their conventional siblings. And it's not just about water bottles, packaging or small items like zippers or buckles. Some fashion brands even produce the midsoles of their running shoes from leftover sugar cane (bagasse), others like WINQS use castor oil and others use algae foam.
Unfortunately, bioplastics, even when properly recycled or decomposed, are not sustainable per se. For example, PLA (polylactic acid) is made from corn. But nearly 90% of popular North American corn is genetically engineered - often associated with potential environmental damage, negative impacts on traditional agriculture, and excessive corporate dominance. In turn, the cultivation of sugarcane can contribute to global CO2 emissions and also lead to loss of natural habitats, water wastage or damage from agrochemicals.
That's why the British think tank Green Alliance recommends using secondary raw materials such as waste or low-quality by-products from other processes to produce bio-based plastics without the additional environmental impact of agriculture.
Incidentally, to date no more than 1% of all plastics produced are bioplastics. The missing mass still leads to significantly higher prices for bio-based materials (up to 50% more expensive), which is why companies continue to manufacture their products from cheaper, petroleum-based compounds. Still, it's good to see that some brands have already started to break this vicious circle.