10 • 19 • 2021

Surfrider Foundation Releases New Bioplastic Toolkit

By Miho Ligare

Have you ever purchased products marketed as compostable or biodegradable because they seemed like better alternatives to traditional plastic, even if you were not quite sure it was true? You are not alone! 

Whether intentionally or unintentionally, these claims can sometimes be a source of greenwashing — that’s when a product or action/service is falsely marketed as good for the environment. Greenwashing has become prevalent over the years, due in part to consumers demanding a more sustainable alternative to single-use plastic products. There are increasing claims about the benign nature of products as companies attempt to persuade consumers to purchase them. However, not all of these claims are meaningful or authentic. There are also legal complexities with some of these terms. The Surfrider Foundation's Plastic Pollution Initiative is excited to release the Bioplastic Toolkit to address the complexities and confusion surrounding this topic.

What are Bioplastics?

The Bioplastic Toolkit uses the term bioplastics broadly to include bio-based plastics derived from renewable materials, such as plants and bacteria, and fossil fuel-based plastic products marketed as biodegradable or compostable. This toolkit provides additional background on the problems with bioplastics, product certifications and standards, and how federal and state governments are tackling this issue. There are also recommendations based on the vetted review of experts and a glossary of terminology that can often be confusing and misleading. The recommendations include how to avoid bioplastics and what to use if reusables are not an option. The Surfrider Foundation’s ultimate goal is source reduction and shifting away from single-use plastic items toward long-lasting reusable products. 

There are a myriad of problems with bioplastics, including harming our coastal and marine environment. These products often have toxic additives to increase their performance, which leads to bioplastics lasting in the environment for the same amount of time if not properly disposed of. The disposal of bioplastics can also be problematic since there is a lack of infrastructure in the U.S. to compost bioplastics, and even if it ends up in a commercial composting facility, municipalities may not want compostable plastic foodware.

Key Takeaways from the Bioplastic Toolkit

At this time, Surfrider does not endorse the use of bioplastics, regardless of whether it is labeled biodegradable or compostable.

  • The federal government and a few state governments have created laws and guidance documents to minimize greenwashing and hold businesses more accountable for marketing their products as compostable or biodegradable.

  • The term compostable has a certification process governed by various state laws in the U.S., and marketing a plastic product using the term biodegradable (and other terms involving degradable) is prohibited under some state laws. 

  • Generally speaking, plastic products and packaging cannot be marketed as biodegradable since companies/ suppliers have not been able to show with competent and reliable scientific evidence as of yet that the entire item will completely break down and return to nature.

When in doubt, reusables are the most environmentally preferred alternative to single-use plastics. Despite the marketing hype claiming bioplastic products to be compostable or biodegradable, this type of single-use plastic is not the end-all solution it may seem like and is distracting us from lasting solutions like reuse and refill.