What are biodegradable plastics?



In recent years, Vietnam has witnessed widespread development of biodegradable plastics and their presence in the market. What is biodegradable plastic? Where is it sourced from? What are its pros and cons? How is it used in daily life? This article below will help you gain a better understanding of these aspects and provide essential information related to products made from this type of plastic.

1. What are biodegradable plastics?

Biodegradable plastic is a type of plastic produced from biological sources such as starch, cellulose, or plant-based oils. These types of plastics can completely decompose into nutrients for plants and microorganisms under suitable conditions.

Biodegradable plastics are commonly used to manufacture single-use products, such as trash bags, food containers, or plastic cups. Utilizing biodegradable plastics can help reduce plastic waste and protect the environment.

Some popular types of biodegradable plastics today include:

  • PLA (Polylactic acid): Produced from sources like cornstarch, potatoes, or sugarcane, PLA is the most common biodegradable plastic used for making food packaging, household items, and medical materials.
  • PHA (Polyhydroxyalkanoate): Produced from various types of bacteria, PHA is a biodegradable plastic that can completely break down in natural environments. It is used for making food packaging and medical supplies.
  • PBAT (Polybutylene adipate terephthalate): Derived from plant-based oils, PBAT is a biodegradable plastic that can decompose in soil. It is used for producing food packaging and household items.
  • PCL (Polycaprolactone): Made from plant-based oils, PCL is a biodegradable plastic that can decompose in soil. It is used for making food packaging and household items.
  • PBS (Polybutylene succinate): Produced from plant-based oils, PBS is a biodegradable plastic that can break down in soil. It is used for making food packaging and household items.
  • PEF (Polyethylene furanoate): Manufactured from plant-based oils, PEF is a biodegradable plastic that can decompose in soil. It is used for producing plastic bottles, pipes, and more.

What are biodegradable plastics?

2. What are biodegradable plastics made of?

Biodegradable plastic (BDP) is a type of plastic that can decompose by microorganisms, typically bacteria, over a certain period. During decomposition, it transforms into water, carbon dioxide, and biomass, leaving no harmful compounds in the environment. This process can be divided into four stages: biodegradation, polymer degradation, biotic decomposition, and mineralization.

There is a type of plastic called bio-based plastic (BBP) if it is produced from biologically sourced polymers, but not all BBPs have biodegradability. For example, bio-PE, bio-PP, and bio-PET are bio-based but not biodegradable.
BBPs and BDPs are categorized into the following groups:

  • Non-biodegradable bio-based plastics: Produced from renewable materials such as cornstarch, potatoes, and cassava. These include plastics like PE (polyethylene), PET (polyethylene terephthalate), PA (polyamide), and more recently, PP (polypropylene) and PEF (polyethylene furanoate).
  • Completely biodegradable BBPs: Manufactured from biological materials or through biological pathways. This category includes PLA (polylactic acid), PHA (polyhydroxyalkanoates), TPS (thermoplastic starch), and various starch-based mixtures.
  • Petrochemical-based BDPs: These include PBAT (Polybutylene adipate terephthalate), PCL (polycaprolactone), PBS (polybutylene succinate), which have petroleum-based origins.

Biodegradable plastics, including PLA, PHA, starch-based mixtures, and others, accounts for over 55% of the total BBPs worldwide. It is projected that the production of BDPs will increase to 1.33 million tons by 2024, with the fastest growth rate expected for PHA, estimated to triple in the next 5 years. BDPs are receiving global attention and development due to their environmental friendliness, use of renewable resources, user safety, and recyclability.

What are biodegradable plastics made of?

3. Pros and cons of biodegradable plastic?

Biodegradable plastic offers several outstanding advantages over traditional plastics, as follows:

  • Environmentally Friendly: Biodegradable plastic can naturally decompose in soil, water, or composting conditions. This helps minimize plastic waste in the environment, contributing to environmental and ecological protection.
  • Health Safety: Biodegradable plastic is made from renewable materials and does not contain harmful substances like BPA or phthalates, making it safe for human health.
  • Lower Energy Consumption: The production of biodegradable plastic consumes less energy compared to traditional plastic production, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and protecting the environment.
  • Versatile Applications: Biodegradable plastic can be used to manufacture various products, including food packaging, household items, medical products, and agricultural applications.

However, biodegradable plastic also has some disadvantages:

  • Higher Production Costs: The raw materials for producing biodegradable plastic are often more expensive than those for traditional plastics, resulting in higher production costs. This can lead to higher prices for products made from biodegradable plastic compared to those made from traditional plastic.
  • Dependent on Environmental Conditions: Biodegradable plastic only fully degrades in specific conditions, such as composting or with the presence of biological agents. If released into the natural environment, it may take a long time to degrade or may not degrade at all.
  • Limited Heat and Strength Resistance: Biodegradable plastic has lower heat resistance and strength compared to traditional plastics, making it suitable for specific applications. For example, it may not be suitable for products requiring high heat resistance, such as cups, glasses, bowls, and so on.

To address these limitations, researchers are continuously studying and developing biodegradable plastics that degrade more rapidly, possess higher heat resistance and strength, and have lower production costs.

Pros and cons of biodegradable plastic?

4. Applications of Biodegradable Plastic

Biodegradable plastic finds extensive applications in various fields, including:

  • Packaging: This is the most common application area for biodegradable plastic. It is used to produce packaging products such as food bags, shopping bags, grocery bags, food containers, and more. These products can biodegrade in natural environments over a short period, helping to reduce environmental pollution.
  • Medical Tools: Biodegradable plastic is used to manufacture medical instruments such as syringes, catheters, bandages, and more. These products can biodegrade in soil or water, reducing the risk of cross-contamination.
  • Agriculture: Biodegradable plastic is utilized to produce agricultural products like mulch films and fertilizers. Biodegradable mulch films can help control the growth of weeds and increase crop yields. Biodegradable fertilizers can improve soil quality and plant growth.
  • Construction: Biodegradable plastic is used to produce construction materials such as plastic sheets and bricks. These products can biodegrade in soil, helping to minimize environmental pollution.
  • Cosmetics: Biodegradable plastic is used to manufacture cosmetic products such as lipsticks and skin creams. These products can biodegrade in soil or water, reducing the risk of environmental contamination.

Applications of Biodegradable Plastic

5. What are the problems with biodegradable plastics?

How is biodegradable plastic different from regular plastic?

Regular plastic is typically made from petroleum, a non-renewable resource that can contribute to environmental pollution. Biodegradable plastic is made from biological sources, which are renewable and biodegradable.

How long does it take for biodegradable plastic to decompose?

The decomposition time of biodegradable plastic depends on various factors such as the type of plastic, the composting environment, and the conditions the plastic is exposed to. Generally, biodegradable plastic can decompose within a few months to several years.

Is biodegradable plastic a solution to the plastic pollution problem?

Biodegradable plastic can be a part of the solution to the plastic pollution problem, but it is not the sole solution. It is essential to reduce plastic production, increase recycling and reuse of plastic, and effectively manage plastic waste.

Is biodegradable plastic safe for human health?

Research has shown that biodegradable plastic is safe for human health. However, it is crucial to choose biodegradable plastic products from reputable suppliers.

Can biodegradable plastic be composted?

Biodegradable plastic can be composted in industrial composting facilities. However, not all types of biodegradable plastic can be composted at home.

Can biodegradable plastic be recycled?

Some types of biodegradable plastic can be recycled. However, it is essential to choose biodegradable plastic products that are recyclable.

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