Sensing the souring of consumers on freshly pressed petrochemical plastics, companies around the planet are shifting their products and packaging to a host of “eco-friendly” plastics. But what does that phrase mean?
By definition, eco-friendly plastics refer to a group of engineered polymers designed to break down or be recycled in a circular fashion. Generally, this group breaks out into three categories: bioplastics, biodegradable plastics, and recycled plastics.
Bioplastics are a family of polymers created with renewable resources and capable of breaking down naturally. Bio-based (also known as “plant-based”) plastics include starch-based material derived from potatoes or corn, polylactic acid (PLA), polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA), and innovative new materials like Notpla, a solution made from seaweed.
One of these in particular, PLA (derived from corn), is rapidly gaining acceptance with producers. Compared to traditional plastics, it only uses one-third of the energy to produce, emits 70% less greenhouse gasses when degrading in landfill, and reduces overall emissions by 25% or more.
Biodegradable plastics are a class of plastics made either partially or completely from non-renewable petroleum containing chemical additives that cause them to decompose more rapidly in the presence of light, oxygen, moisture, and/or heat.
Polybutylene adipate terephthalate (PBAT) and polybutylene succinate (PBS) are petroleum-based materials used in product packaging, films, and in some cases, as liners for paper cups. Overall, they’re viewed as more environmentally friendly than the traditional numbered seven.
Recycled plastics are materials created using varying percentages of post-consumer petroleum-based plastics. These materials can be circular—such as a PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottle returning as an RPET bottle. Or, they can be downcycled—such as HDPE (high-density polyethylene) grocery bags becoming deck planking or park benches.
Recycled plastic products, like other traditional plastics, aren’t recognized as biodegradable.