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Sustainability of Bio-based Plastics: General Comparative Analysis and Recommendations for Improvement

This study evaluated the sustainability of bio-based plastics including all the stages of their life cycles (cradle to grave) to assist in decision making about selection of these materials. Plastics are considered essential materials in today’s society, but throughout their life cycles they contribute to pollution and depletion of non-renewable natural resources. Bio-based plastics appear to be more environmentally friendly materials than their petroleum-based counterparts when their origin and biodegradability are compared. But which of the bio-based plastics currently on the market or soon to be on the market are preferable from an environmental, health, and safety perspective? Results of this qualitative study were displayed in two Bioplastics Spectrums that provide a visual summary of the data gathered on bio-based plastics according to sustainability criteria. This analysis found that none of bio-based plastics currently in commercial use or under development are fully sustainable. Each of the bio-based plastics reviewed utilizes: genetically modified organisms for feedstock manufacture and/or toxic chemicals in the production process or generates these as byproducts, and/or co-polymers from non-renewable resources. When deciding to substitute conventional petroleum-based plastics with bio-based plastics it is important to understand the flow of these materials and their adverse impacts in all parts of their life cycles in order to select a material that is more sustainable.