Plastics explained: Plastic, Micro- & Bioplastics (PLA)

The plastic production in the 1950’s was estimated to be 2 million metric tons and by recent analysis 396 million metric tons in 2016.  As we know the plastic problem is big. It’s not going away easily. Let’s understand what plastic really is and talk about some of the different types that exist. Also lets think about the question: is there such a thing as ‘good’ plastic?

Traditional Plastic

Plastics are derived from natural, organic materials such as cellulose, coal, natural gas(petroleum), salt and oil. Plastic is the term commonly used to describe a wide range of synthetic or semi-synthetic materials that are used in a big amount of applications. Look around you, you are probably surrounded by more plastic than you know!

The chemistry of plastics can be complex, but the basics are simple. Plastics are simply chains of molecules linked together. These chains are called polymers. The molecules are monomers. The properties of plastic depend on the length of the polymer. There are 7 main plastic types. We will introduce 2 of them for you. But first, we can’t stress enough how serious the impact of this material is on the environment! The world is producing in such a rapid rate but plastic waste is left uncollected, openly dumped, littered, or managed through uncontrolled landfill. It is estimated that at least one-third of plastic waste has entered nature in land, freshwater or marine pollution.


And then we have microplastic. Microplastics are very tiny plastic particles, usually smaller than 5mm. Microplastics can be distinguished by their source. There are two main types: primary and secondary. Primary microplastics, also called microbeads, are plastics that are purposefully made to be that size. They are used for multiple personal care products. For example, some of these microbeads are found in products like sunscreen, body lotion, make-up, toothpaste, body scrubs. Items we use every day!

micro beats that are created for productsMicrobeats created for products

In 2012 the Plastic Soup Foundation started the Beat the Microbead campaign. This campaign is now supported by 95 NGOs from 40 countries worldwide.  This campaign even led to the ban on microbeads in some countries, such as the United States, Australia and Canada. Unfortunately this is just a start. Microplastics are also used for air blasting technology. These microbeads are used under high pressure to clean out paint or rust in certain machines, engines, or ships. You can imagine that these microbeads get contaminated with the chemicals from these heavy metals. Ultimately this chemical mix ends up in our oceans.

Secondary microplastics are particles that come from bigger waste, like plastic bags or bottles. This waste mostly comes from improper waste management and ends up in nature and the ocean. This waste breaks down mostly due to weather conditions like waves, sunlight, or other physical stress. It has become clear in the past few years, that there is also a consequence of plastic that is harder to see. Microplastics do not decompose and once they enter the environment uncontrolled they are impossible to remove. 

Micro plastics have been found in beer, tap water, sea salt, fish and much more. According to research by Greenpeace and the University of Incheon in South Korea, 90% of their researched sea salt (produced in Asia) contained microplastics. 39 different salt brands around the world were analyzed. Only 3 did not contain micro plastic.

Bioplastic (also know as PLA)

Knowing what impact plastic has on the environment, researchers, inventors and manufacturers have been putting focus on designing plastics that are more eco-friendly and will dissolve much faster in nature. The most talked about “environmentally friendly” plastic is bioplastic.

Bioplastic is plastic made of natural renewable sources such as corn, cassava, sugar beet and sugar cane. There are two main types of bioplastic: PLA’s and PHA’s. PLA stands for polylactic acid, made by extracting sugar from these plants and then fermented under specific conditions into polylactic acid. PHA stands for polyhydroxyalkanoates, engineered from microorganisms. These bioplastics look and behave like traditional plastic, but they are better. Bioplastic uses two third less energy than you would need to make traditional plastic. Generally speaking bioplastics are also compostable. They break down into natural materials that blend harmlessly with soil. These are all positive sides of this eco-friendly plastic.

While bioplastics are generally considered to be more eco-friendly than traditional plastics, it isn’t the answer to our prayers just yet.

Bio plastic cup
Bioplastic cups

There are also disadvantages about bioplastic. For example, some bioplastics don’t compost easily or completely and some even leave toxic residues or plastic fragments behind. Most bioplastics need intense heat to degrade on their own in a meaningful timeframe.  To compost bioplastic, there is an industrial composting process required where a high temperature above 58°C and 50% relative humidity is used. As you can imagine this is almost impossible do to at home. Also, very few cities have the infrastructure needed to deal with this. The downside is, bioplastic very frequently ends up in landfills and due to bad waste management ends up in our oceans. When in the ocean, their behavior is the same as petroleum-based plastic. They stay there almost forever; break down to microplastics and danger our marine life and human health.

Closing the Loop bioplastic
Photo credit: European Bioplastics | Unfortunately the end-of-life options don't always work and bioplastics ends up in landfills and due to bad waste management ends up in our oceans.

There is still so much research to do. Now you have a little insight on the different types of plastics that exist and their impact on the environment and how it can effect our health. What can we do together to decrease the use of plastics? With the plastic ban coming in 2021 on single-use plastic in the European Union we will get one step closer to reducing the plastic soup. Read about it here.


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