What are bioplastics anyway? Confusion over term hinders fight against waste, expert says

A Vancouver-based plastics expert is pushing for more public education about the different types of plastics following Ottawa’s plans to eliminate the use of single-use plastics in government operations.

There's a big difference between bio-based and biodegradable, Love-Ese Chile says

The terminology around plastics — particularly bioplastics — can be confusing for consumers, says Love-Ese Chile. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

A Vancouver-based plastics expert is pushing for more public education about the different types of plastics following Ottawa's plans to eliminate the use of single-use plastics in government operations.

Love-Ese Chile, a bioplastics specialist and consultant, argues not all plastics are the same and it's crucial to understand their differences when creating public policy.

"Right now, everyone is kind of confused about bioplastics," she told Stephen Quinn, host of CBC's The Early Edition.

"On a good day, we are going to recycle some of our plastics. On a bad day, we're going to end up with plastics in the landfill."

Identification codes are used to differentiate between types of plastics. (Alberta Plastics Recycling Association)

Different types of plastics are defined by a number — for example, No. 1 is PETE, used for drinks bottles; No. 2 is HDPE, used for milk jugs and plastic bags — but bioplastics are lumped together in a catch-all category.

"Every other plastic has a number associated with it, but all bioplastics fall onto this No. 7 'other' [classification]," Chile said. 

'We need legislation for labelling, we need better infrastructure for collection of these plastics, and infrastructure for breaking them down and recycling,' says Vancouver-based bioplastics expert Love-Ese Chile. (Shutterstock/Gigira)

Bio-based vs. biodegradable

In fact, Chile said, there are three major categories when it comes to sustainable plastics: those that are bio-based, those that are biodegradable and those that are both.

"One of the biggest problems is that they are all called bioplastics, and that gets really confusing," Chile said.

Bio-based plastics are made from biological resources — like polylactic acid, a polyester created by plant sources such as corn starch — whereas biodegradable refers to its ability to decompose.

Not all bio-based plastics are biodegradable, and vice versa, Chile emphasized, which is why she is pushing to clarify the terminology of bioplastics.

Even composting biodegradable plastics isn't cut and dry, she said, because most composting facilities are built around food waste and have a turnaround time of between 45 to 90 days.

Biodegradable plastics, on the other hand, need around 180 days to compost.

"Unless you have the correct conditions to break [the plastics] down in, they are just going to be left over," she said. "The food waste will break down and you'll have plastics left over."

Researchers warn that there there could be more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050. (Rich Carey/Shutterstock)

Push to reduce plastics

By 2050, there could be more plastic in the ocean than there are fish in terms of biomass, some researchers warn.

That's leading to a push to reduce plastic use, with one mayoral candidate in Vancouver raising the idea of banning single-use plastics.

Victoria recently banned single-use plastic bags and, in several B.C. communities, plastic straws have been targeted.

Victoria won a court battle with the Canadian Plastic Bag Association over the city's right to ban plastic bags earlier this year. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Chile says these kind of changes help but don't target the fundamental problem.

"In the grand scheme of things, it's a drop in the ocean," she said.

"That's not really changing our interaction with plastics … we really need to change the way we are using them and displacing of them."

She is pushing for wide change from everyone involved the life cycle of plastics.

"We need legislation for labelling, we need better infrastructure for collection of these plastics and infrastructure for breaking them down and recycling," Chile said.

A Vancouver-based plastics expert is pushing for more public education about the different types of plastics following Ottawa's plans to eliminate the use of single-use plastics in government operations. 8:14

With files from The Early Edition

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