Bioplastics' Contribution to Plastic Pollution

Bioplastics aren’t necessarily greener. Producing them may require more energy, cause more pollution, and detract from lands available for food production in a world with a lot of hungry people.

| November 2014

In Plastic Purge (St. Martin's Press, 2014), ecologist Michael SanClements has put together the most up-to-date and scientifically backed information available to explain how plastics release toxins into your body and the effect they have on your health (and that of your children). In this excerpt, the negative effects of bioplastics and how they contribute to plastic pollution are discussed.

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Plastic Purge.


Bioplastics (and biofuels) are becoming increasingly popular and easier to find in everyday life. In both cases, it’s a seemingly wonderful and simple solution to a big problem, but when you dig deeper, in reality it’s actually very complicated and not necessarily the panacea we may have hoped.

Currently, bioplastics represent a very small (less than 1 percent) but rapidly growing part of the plastics market. Some estimates project growth as high as 30 percent per year (30 percent increase in the amount of bioplastics, not 30 percent of the entire plastics market).

Some big names in bioplastic manufacturing within the United States are NatureWorks—a collaboration between the Japanese company Teijin and the US company Cargill—and Metabolix, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. While still a very small part of the overall plastics market, bioplastics have benefited from both extremely high oil prices and the recent trend toward environmentalism and preference for “greener” products in consumer choices. The bioplastics market in the United States is estimated to reach a value of $680 million by 2016 and is expected to continue growing in the future. In 2012 both North America and Europe were using approximately 27 percent of their estimated available bioplastic production capacity, meaning companies in both countries have the ability to significantly step up production should they want to. Whether the bioplastics industry grows to fill those capacities remains to be seen.

Since bioplastics still comprise only an extremely small part of the plastics market (less than 1 percent, remember?), I think the most important question to ask is: do we really want that value to grow? And if it does, can it do so in a manner that makes sense from an environmental perspective? I know it may seem like bioplastics are ideal for sustainability, but the reality of the situation is that they aren’t a cure-all for our plastic problem.

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