Many myths around bio-based materials are circling around and this is unfortunate for everyone who is trying to make sense out of living a sustainable life. So let’s debunk them one by one.
Bio-based products and materials consist (mainly) out of one or multiple substances extracted from biomass or in other terms, from living matter, like plants, trees or animals.
Myth 1: Bio-based products are per definition more sustainable is, unfortunately, a myth
Bio stands for any living organism, it basically means “life”, opposite to “death” raw materials like fossil fuels and natural gas. That something is bio-based only means that the materials are derived from living raw materials, it doesn’t say anything about how these raw materials are produced. In other words whilst something is bio-based the raw materials can be grown in an unsustainable way by for example deforestation for land use or intensive agriculture practice leading to soil depletion.
Myth 2: Bio-based and organic are the same
Organic farming methods means that raw materials are produced without any use of chemical products like pesticides or fertilizers. That a product is bio-based does in no way imply that the raw materials are produced without the use of artificial chemicals.
Myth 3: Bio-based means that products are always biodegradable
Biodegradation means that a product or material naturally breaks down. Materials are turned back into water or gases by microorganisms like bacteria and fungi. In the right conditions and if you wait long enough, sometimes even thousands of years, everything will eventually biodegrade. For this reason, there is no official definition of biodegradable, as it all depends on the conditions and time. We still say that not everything is biodegradable, because not all biobased products biodegrade within a reasonable under “normal” conditions. E.g. by 24 degrees Celcius over a time span of a 100 years.
“If and how quickly a plastic item biodegrades depends on: (1) if it is designed for biodegradation or composting and (2) the conditions it is exposed to after use and for how long.” (Source: European Environment Agency)
Myth 4: Bio-degradable and compostable are the same
The bio in biobased also doesn’t mean that all the products can be composted at the end of their life. “Composting is the organic recycling process in which organic waste is broken down by microbial digestion to create compost”.
Not all biobased products can be composed. They are not simply living raw materials anymore once they are turned into complex materials. Produced throughout an intensive and irreversible process. Many bio-based products are neither home nor industrial compostable.
Bio-based Economy (BBE)
The biobased economy aims for the transition from an economy dependent on fossil fuels to an economy running on biomass.
Fossil fuels are not only used for electricity but are also the basis for many products like plastics, chemicals and medicines. Solar and wind energy can provide us with electricity and substitute fossil fuels, but they can’t form the basis for products and this is where biobased materials play a unique role, they can serve as building blocks for all the products we now produce out of fossil fuels.
Types of Plastics Explained
Can’t see the forest through the trees. Or can’t see the garbage belt through the types of plastic? No wonder that many consumers are confused and misled. This list by the European Environment Agency is the easiest and briefest we could find. Hopefully, it will help you get a better grip on plastic.
“Biodegradable plastics are designed to biodegrade in a specific medium (water, soil, compost) under certain conditions and in varying periods of time.
Industrially compostable plastics are designed to biodegrade in the conditions of an industrial composting plant or an industrial anaerobic digestion plant with a subsequent composting step.
Home compostable plastics are designed to biodegrade in the conditions of a well-managed home composter at lower temperatures than in industrial composting plants. Most of them also biodegrade in industrial composting plants.
Bio-based plastics are fully or partly made from biological raw materials as opposed to the fossil raw material (oil) used in conventional plastics.
Non-biodegradable plastics last for long periods of time. They can disintegrate into smaller pieces, forming microplastics, and accumulate in the environment. Oxo-degradable plastics include additives that, through oxidation, lead to their fragmentation into microplastics or chemical decomposition.”
(Source: European Environment Agency)
What is obvious is that consumers can only make environmentally friendly and informed decisions when producers start to communicate clearly and transparently. And tell us what really happens to a product at every stage of its life cycle, and especially the end of life stage. It’s crucial that consumers know how to correctly select and dispose of products and packaging. It’s only fair to give everyone who wants to live sustainably a fair shot at doing so.
Minou & Pamela