By Kate Noble, No Plastics in Nature Policy Manager, WWF-Australia
Across Australia nearly every state and territory has now moved to ban some of the most unnecessary and harmful conventional plastic products. This is an incredible outcome and is the result of tireless advocacy and action from Australians for years.
However, many Australian consumers are now moving to replace their use of single-use plastics with bioplastics, or ‘green plastics.’ These products are often marketed as being biodegradable and/or made partially or entirely from biological materials. Some states have already banned bioplastic versions of single-use products, but in other states we’re seeing increasing demand. So, are these bioplastics really more environmentally friendly? Are they the solution to swapping out conventional fossil-fuel based plastics?
We set out to answer these questions recently with the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney. What we found is a complicated story, a lot of unknowns, and a good deal of greenwashing. It turns out, bioplastics are actually a very grey area
A complicated story
Conventional (synthetic) plastics are made from fossil fuels
– oil, gas and coal – and can last for decades or even centuries when they enter the environment. When leaked into the environment, they risk injury and death in wildlife, and over time break up into microplastics, which present a wide range of health and environmental risks.
Because of this, there’s growing momentum to move away from conventional plastics
. Bioplastics are often promoted as a ‘more sustainable’ solution, but this is only the case if they’re produced responsibly and are effectively managed at the end of their life.
Bioplastics aren’t always compostable, and even if they are, they may require treatment in industrial composting facilities – not at home. Some bioplastics are recyclable alongside conventional plastics, others aren’t. Companies aren’t required to have compostable products tested and verified in Australia, though there is a voluntary scheme
, so we can’t always be sure exactly what we’re getting when we buy products sold as compostable bioplastic products.
While the bioplastics market is small in Australia
, it’s growing here and internationally. And evidence suggests that while this may help us when it comes to reducing our reliance on fossil fuels, it’s not necessarily better for the environment
. Most bioplastics end up in landfill in Australia, and if littered, can present the same risks to wildlife compared with conventional plastics.
On the upside, if effectively managed and responsibly produced and labelled
, bioplastics may have an important role to play in reducing food waste. Food in landfill is a huge problem in Australia
, which causes climate harm and wastes billions of dollars every year. Evidence suggests
compostable bags can keep more food waste out of landfill, which reduces landfill methane emissions.
Greenwashing is widespread
We wanted to find out how much greenwashing of bioplastics is happening in Australia. While we’ve seen many examples of this, there’s not a lot of hard evidence. To work out whether this is a limited or widespread issue, the Institute for Sustainable Futures assessed claims made about 26 bioplastic products made and/or sold by 14 companies.
The top line finding is pretty shocking: more than 50% claims about products were either misleading or potentially misleading (29%) or could not be verified (24%).
These included misleading or confusing statements on product disposal; use of vague language such as ‘green, ‘earth friendly’ and ‘sustainable’; use of the term ‘biodegradable’ for products that aren’t compostable; use of the term ‘plastic-free’; and unverifiable claims about feedstocks and carbon footprint.
Greenwashing is illegal in Australia, but our research found widespread evidence just in relation to bioplastics.
So, what do we do with bioplastics?
Bioplastics are not a solution to excessive plastic waste generation that we currently see in Australia and around the world. Neither are they a solution to the problem of plastic pollution, as they can pose similar risks if leaked into the environment to conventional plastics. These risks include breaking up into microplastics and ingestion and entanglement by wildlife.
For plastic products we don’t need – including many single-use plastics – we should phase them out altogether. In many cases bioplastic, cardboard or wooden alternatives are just switching out one problem for another. Breaking up with conventional plastics is a good thing, but completely replacing them with bioplastics is not the way forward.
There are some uses where bioplastics make sense, or might makes sense in years to come. Where they divert food from landfill is a great example. Depending on the composting infrastructure and rules in a particular state, city or town, other uses for bioplastics might be sensible, if they’re properly processed when they reach the end of their life.
But the picture is way too complicated to leave it up to the market, to companies, and to people trying to make responsible decisions based on vague information. We need our governments to show leadership on this issue, as many are doing with conventional plastics, and put in place clear rules to make sure bioplastics aren’t creating new problems, and greenwashing is stamped out.
Top tips to avoid greenwashed bioplastics:
- Avoid them altogether! Remember the waste hierarchy – or Jack Johnson’s classic 3Rs song – which sets out clear planet-friendly priorities with waste avoidance and reduction at the top, followed by reuse and recycle, and disposal as the least preferable option.
- Bioplastics will find you, even if you don’t seek them out. Many companies have started shipping products in bioplastic bags. Read the fine print and re-use them where you can. If they’re certified compostable, and you or your council can compost them, do it!
- Be wary of vague and misleading language. Not all forms of bioplastic are made equal. Ask the retailer or producer why they’re using bioplastics, whether they can guarantee they’re responsibly made, and why they’re not certified (if they’re not). By doing this, you can help to combat greenwashing from the frontline.
You can read the full bioplastics report produced by the Institute for Sustainable Futures here, and WWF-Australia's research summary here.