Bioplastics is a relatively new area of research into substances that look, feel and act like traditional plastics, but are made from plant materials. Here are some examples of bioplastics:
- Polyactide (PLA) plastic: PLA is the most common type of bioplastic currently available. It's made from starch and is typically found in disposable cups and biodegradable food-service trays.
- Polyhydroxalkanoate (PHA) plastic: PHAs also use starch -- usually from corn, beet root or sugarcane. But instead of disposable food trays, it's typically used for things like cosmetics bottles.
- Cellulose-based plastic: This type of plastic is made from cellulose, the primary component in plant tissue.
Of course, realistically, there’s never going to be a single, cure-all solution to replace a material as ubiquitous as traditional plastic -- at least not anytime soon. And bioplastics have a few hurdles of their own. For example, one common question surrounding the use of bioplastic concerns how biodegradable it is. There's no definitive answer as to how long bioplastic takes to degrade from the time it reaches a landfill. Also, until bioplastic objects degrade, they usually take up the same amount of space in landfills that traditional plastics do. And yet another potential downside of producing crops for making bioplastics is the amount of land required to grow them, land that could instead be used for food crops.
So the jury is still out on whether producing environmentally friendly containers out of bioplastic requires less energy than the production of traditional plastic containers. And then there is the issue of cold, hard economics. Green solutions, to truly take off, need to show they can be cost-effective solutions that don't need any kind of subsidies; they have to make sense to business without hampering it. The two most encouraging bioplastics, PLA and PHA, add 20 percent to 50 percent to manufacturing costs compared with using normal, petroleum-based plastic [source: Dell].
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