Ramping up production of bioplastics ranks #47 on Drawdown’s list of climate solutions, with potential to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide by 4.3 gigatons by 2050. First costs to capture 50% of the plastics market within 30 years would peak at US$19.2 billion.
That ours might be called the Age of Plastic, writes Drawdown, is borne out by the fact that “globally, we produce roughly 310 million tons of plastic each year,” or “83 pounds per person”—a testament to the miracle malleability of a material found everywhere, “from clothing to computers, furniture to football fields.”
Trouble is, much of that tonnage is currently petro-based, the endpoint of “5 to 6% of the world’s annual oil production”, and therefore a serious source of emissions. Moreover, while petro-plastics can be recycled, just 5% currently complete the circle. The remainder are either landfilled or burned (65%), or drift off to pollute land and water (35%). “If current trends continue,” Drawdown states, “plastics will outweigh fish in the world’s oceans by 2050.”
But current trends need not continue. The green chemistry required to produce plastic from biomass or test tube biopolymers, rather than pipelines, is a mature science that is alive and flourishing.
Drawdown stresses, however, that improper disposal of bioplastics will make an already monstrous problem far worse: contrary to common thought, most bioplastics don’t just melt away into compost in your garden bin. They need high heat and/or chemicals to prompt decomposition. And intermixing with conventional recycled plastic will contaminate the lot, “rendering it unstable, brittle, and unusable,” Drawdown states. “Without separation and appropriate processing, bioplastic is all dressed up with nowhere to go in most municipal waste streams, except into the dump.”
Meanwhile, bioplastics still struggle to reach the economies of scale captured by their petroleum-based twin, which has global infrastructure ready-built for its use. The success of bioplastics will depend significantly on ensuring that feedstock supplies are onsite, or near, the place of bioplastic manufacture. And then as the escalating ban on plastic straws today makes clear, there is the power of the activist consumer.