What Are Bioplastics and Are They Better Than Regular Plastic?

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Most bioplastics can’t be put into the same municipal recycling streams as other plastics, since they can contaminate the other plastics and make the whole batch unusable. Many consumer-facing bioplastics, however, can be composted: unlike traditional plastic, a cup made out of some types of bioplastic could be broken down by microbes under the right conditions. In theory, that’s incredibly cool, and may make you feel better about buying something plastic: it won’t last as long in the environment and can be turned into a useful compost. Win-win!

But there are complications. The bioplastic cups I get my iced coffee in from my local coffeeshop, for instance, are from a brand called Greenware, owned by plastics producer Fabri-Kal. (“Show customers you’re doing the right thing with Greenware,” the website says.) Greenware’s website brags that its products are made from “plants, not petroleum,” a move that it says “resonates with consumers.” Reading the fine print, though, it becomes clear that I can’t just toss these cups in any old compost: the products are “not suitable for backyard composting.” Eco Products, another bioplastics seller whose label I recognize from office supply rooms, also advises against composting in a home compost.

Since I don’t have access to commercial composting (only 27% of Americans do), and since I can’t recycle these cups, that basically means I’m shit out of luck when it comes to disposing of these cups responsibly—and they’re going into a landfill.

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