Bioplastics are inadequately defined, poorly regulated, and potentially toxic: Report

HOUSTON — The lack of federal regulations and clear definitions for bioplastics make it increasingly difficult to determine whether or not they are a safe alternative to traditional plastics, according to a new report from Beyond Plastics.

Since 1950 the world has produced 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic, and about half was produced after 2000. Yet only 9% has been recycled, 12% was burned and a staggering 79% entered landfills. As the plastic pollution crisis looms, scientists, industry leaders and environmental advocates are searching for solutions — among them bioplastics, which are loosely defined as plastic materials that are either partly or wholly derived from renewable biomass like plants or are biodegradable or are both. The demand for bioplastics is growing, with its global market size estimated to go from 7.41 billion in 2024 to nearly 57 billion by 2032.

However, the new report raises concerns about harmful chemicals potentially making their way into bioplastics, a lack of regulatory oversight, and potential conflicts of interest in the currently available certifications.

The new report comes on the heels of an Environmental Health News investigation that found bioplastics can contain some of the same harmful chemicals as traditional petrochemical-derived plastic and often will not break down in current composting facilities.

We aren’t saying go back to single use plastics, we appreciate the effort. But these bioplastics just aren’t ready for primetime,” Judith Enck, Beyond Plastics president and previous Environmental Protection Agency administrator, told EHN.

Current state of bioplastic regulation

The report outlines the lack of regulation and clear definitions for bioplastics. There is no universally recognized definition of bioplastics, but this report understands them as part of two categories, plant-based plastic or petrochemical based biodegradable plastic.

There is no bioplastic regulation entity in the United States, and that’s the case for much of the world. Bioplastics companies may voluntarily adhere to trade or industry standards and opt for certifications of their products. In the U.S., the leading independent certifier is the Biodegradable Products Institute, or BPI. However, the report highlighted concerns that BPI may have conflicts of interest due to their board members’ affiliations with petrochemical industry executives and nine major bioplastics manufacturers. This structure could be a case of the “fox guarding the henhouse” according to Enck.

“I’m not sure how much to trust this self-policing,” she said. “If I were to run a stop sign, would I actually report myself?”

And this certification — especially in the absence of meaningful regulation — is key because previous studies have shown that bioplastics can contain many of the same toxic compounds as traditional plastics. “Yet, even less is known about the potential toxicity of those chemicals than the ones in conventional plastics,” according to the new report. At the time of publication, BPI did not respond to EHN’s request for comment.

Potential bioplastic contamination 

“The consumer should know the source of where the biobased materials are coming from, and what the end of the product life looks like,” Anil Netravali, professor emeritus of fiber science and apparel design at Cornell University, told EHN.

“I’m not sure how much to trust this self-policing. If I were to run a stop sign, would I actually report myself?” – Judith Enck, Beyond Plastics

However, the report notes that knowing the source of bioplastic materials can be difficult. While Netravali notes that plant-based proteins and starches used in the products should be non-toxic, concerns can arise if other chemicals are added or if there is contamination in the process. For example, a common biobased plastic polylactic acid, or PLA, can be contaminated by pesticide use from the crops it starts as or potentially contain PFAS.

These concerns can extend to the end of life for biobased products. There is no regulation of the buzzwords used alongside these products, like “compostable” and “biodegradable,” which are often used interchangeably and understood as such by consumers. However, not all bioplastics are compostable, and the ones that are, as noted by Netravali and the report, may need to be composted at industrial compost facilities, as opposed to your garden compost bin.

All of these factors make it difficult for consumers and businesses to decide whether or not to invest in and use bioplastics.

“There’s just a lot of labels and products out there, it can be super confusing,” CJ O’Brien Weddle, ocean friendly programs manager at The Surfrider Foundation, told EHN. O’Brien Weddle manages the Ocean Friendly Restaurants Program, helping restaurants make more sustainable choices to avoid unnecessary single use plastic. She notes that Surfrider typically looks for items that are 100% biobased and can guarantee their disposability process is not similar to how traditional plastics break down.

“At this time, Surfrider does not believe that bio-single-use plastic is a great alternative to conventional single-use plastic, because a lot of times these bioplastic items don’t degrade in the marine environment,” O’Brien Weddle said.

And then there’s the petrochemical-based biodegradable plastics like PVA, or polyvinyl alcohol, that may appear to dissolve in water as a dish or detergent pod, that Netravali notes are unsustainable.

Bioplastic regulation possibilities 

“I’ll admit, I’m a former federal regulator,” Enck said. “And I’d like to see this stuff get regulated.”

Enck noted there are no pending regulations at the federal level, but that Beyond Plastics is advocating for the Federal Trade Commission to include bioplastics in their Green Guides, which are not enforceable by law, but are a series of recommendations for proper use of “green” marketing and terminology. The Green Guides are set to be updated for the first time since 2012, yet there is no official timeline for when the guides will publish.

“Ideally we’d like to see the guides published within the next few months,” Enck said, nodding to the possible administration change.

Bioplastic consumer tips

The Surfrider Foundation and Beyond Plastics recommend avoiding plastic when possible by starting with refillables and reusables. Ocean Friendly Restaurants follow a specific criteria set by Surfrider, and often try to minimize plastic use by only providing disposable materials when requested and even providing incentives for individuals that bring their own reusable materials. Surfrider has guides for restaurants wanting to make the switch to becoming ocean-friendly but don’t know how to choose a product.

“Restaurants are noticing that not only is this helping the planet, but it’s also cutting their costs,” O’Brein Weddle said.

Beyond Plastics also has a checklist tool within the report to help consumers and others make decisions.

*Editor’s note: Beyond Plastics is a project of Bloomberg Philanthropies. EHN receives some funding from Bloomberg Philanthropies.