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What Are “Bioplastics”? Defining Renewability, Biosynthesis, Biodegradability, and Biocompatibility

Today, plastic materials are mostly made from fossil resources, and they are characterized by their long lifetime and pronounced persistence in the open environment. These attributes of plastics are one cause of the ubiquitous pollution we see in our environment. When plastics end up in the environment, most of this pollution can be attributed to a lack of infrastructure for appropriately collecting and recycling plastic waste, mainly due to mismanagement. Because of the huge production volumes of plastics, their merits of being cheap to produce and process and their recalcitrance have turned into a huge disadvantage, since plastic waste has become the end point of our linear economic usage model, and massive amounts have started to accumulate in the environment, leading to microplastics pollution and other detrimental effects. A possible solution to this is offered by “bioplastics”, which are materials that are either (partly) biobased and/or degradable under defined conditions. With the rise of bioplastics in the marketplace, several standards and test protocols have been developed to assess, certify, and advertise their properties in this respect. This article summarizes and critically discusses different views on bioplastics, mainly related to the properties of biodegradability and biobased carbon content; this shall allow us to find a common ground for clearly addressing and categorizing bioplastic materials, which could become an essential building block in a circular economy. Today, bioplastics account for only 1–2% of all plastics, while technically, they could replace up to 90% of all fossil-based plastics, particularly in short-lived goods and packaging, the single most important area of use for conventional plastics. Their replacement potential not only applies to thermoplastics but also to thermosets and elastomers. Bioplastics can be recycled through different means, and they can be made from renewable sources, with (bio)degradability being an option for the mismanaged fraction and special applications with an intended end of life in nature (such as in seed coatings and bite protection for trees). Bioplastics can be used in composites and differ in their properties, similarly to conventional plastics. Clear definitions for “biobased” and “biodegradable” are needed to allow stakeholders of (bio)plastics to make fact-based decisions regarding material selection, application, and end-of-life options; the same level of clarity is needed for terms like “renewable carbon” and “bio-attributed” carbon, definitions of which are summarized and discussed in this paper.

Publication date: 13/12/2023

Author: Maximilian Lackner

Reference: doi: 10.3390/polym15244695

MDPI (polymers)


This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 870292.