Where can you go without seeing plastic? It is all around us: in bottles, in wrapping, in tables and chairs, cup lids, cars, computers and cell phones, the unavoidable, non-biodegradable reality of modern existence. News stories of plastic invading the oceans and poisoning our soil naturally horrify us, and rightly so. But the sad truth of the situation is that our consumption of and need for plastic is continually growing, not shrinking. Many eco-scientists have realized that what we need, what will truly transform our relationship to plastic, is plastic that can be broken down without harm to the environment. We need biodegradable plastic.

Plastic On Ocean Floor
Credit: johnny2love via Flickr
In the ideal world of the future these bottles would biodegrade, unfortunately only a small fraction of plastic products are currently biodegradable.

Biodegradable plastic uses various forms of naturally occurring materials to produce a form of plastic that can be broken down into substances more easily and safely absorbed back into the environment. It can be composted

This form of plastic can be created in a variety of ways, with perhaps the most common current versions using some form of petroleum. These versions can only be broken down by commercial composting and recycling factories, but they do represent a major step up from non-biodegradable plastics. One of the drawbacks of this form of plastic are that its petroleum makeup results in a great deal of carbon being released in the composting process. This, along with the fact that petroleum is an expensive fossil fuel, makes it a less than ideal candidate to replace traditional plastic in the long term.

Recent developments in plastic technology, however, offer the potential for a much more promising future. Scientists are increasingly making use of plant crops such as corn, buckwheat, and switchgrass to create plastic based on renewable resources. While such products DO produce a small amount of CO2 during the composting process, they do not produce carbon or harmful byproducts in the production phase, as petroleum does.

As with ethanol, the major issue with corn-based products is the effect using a major food crop might have on such concerns as food supply, world corn prices, and pesticide pollution. All of the above problems illustrate why corn-based plastics may not prove to be the long-term solution for biodegradable plastics. Corn-based plastics also still need to be taken to commercial composting plants for processing.

Plastics made from switchgrass or other "wild", nonfood crops show more promise, but scientists are still working to remove major obstacles such as cost, durability, and mass production. Currently, such plastics cost more than twice as much to produce as traditional plastics, meaning that only companies heavily invested in environmental awareness will bother to use such products. In addition, some "plant plastics" have been shown to allow water to slowly evaporate from bottles over time, thus negating the most obvious use of such products.

Scientists, however, are quickly catching up to such problems, allowing hope to remain for a fully viable use of biodegradable plastic in the future. USA Today reports that a company called Earth Bottles strengthens switchgrass plastic with certain natural fibers and minerals to create a tough, fortified natural plastic that is not only suited for use in industrial as well as consumer settings, but is also more fully biodegradable. Some eco-conscious companies have even begun putting EarthBottles to use in consumer products.

Innovation such as this offers a great deal of promise for the future of "bioplastics", including a hope that someday these plastics might be broken down through a process as simple as your average backyard compost heap. Until then, more modest goals have been set, such as getting bioplastics to a 10% market share or finding crops that will allow it to be mass-produced more cheaply. In the meantime, we can support these products by buying them whenever we can, as well as supporting legislation subsidizing innovation in this field.