Bioplastics: Are they really better than traditional plastics?

Group 4

Introduction

Petroleum based plastics are one of humanity’s greatest inventions. They have allowed for rapid manufacture of vital products and are used to create packaging that keeps our food fresher for longer. Now, globalisation has reduced the cost of manufacturing these traditional plastics from pounds to pennies. However, all this isn’t without an environmental cost. Is it time for these petroleum based plastics to be replaced by a more sustainable and environmentally friendly bioplastics alternative?

Bioplastics are biodegradable plastic derived from biological substances. The three main types are: Hemp, Algae, and Mycelium based plastics which are all renewable and biodegradable. All these could replace traditional petroleum plastics, but at what cost to the planet and what products are we left with?

Arguement for Bioplastics

Environmental ethics are at the forefront of this dilemma. Each year, 190.5 million tonnes of single use plastics are produced and since it is non-biodegradable, our oceans and land have been infested with waste [1]. Bioplastics will massively reduce environmentally damaging waste, breaking down naturally and, in cases like Mycelium, they give nutrients back into the ground promoting growth in the environment [2]. Bioplastics are carbon neutral or better e.g. hemp plants absorb 12 tonnes of CO2 per year per hectare. Implementing fields could help counteract climate change and protect the environment.

Kantian theory states an action is morally right if it agrees with accepted moral principles, changing to bioplastics would protect the environment, an agreed moral norm, hence the change should be taken. Currently, 14 million tonnes of plastic waste goes into the ocean each year[3]. Clearly it is a moral principle to protect the ocean and the animals from this pollution which are currently ingesting large volumes of plastic killing whales, turtles and large ocean environments which are needed to sustain the ocean’s ecosystem. Hence not changing to bioplastics would fit the moral principle of virtue ethics.

From a Utilitarian approach moving to bioplastics benefits the most people hence the change should be taken. On the current course fish supplies around coastal central Africa will drop by up to 60% and 8% globally, this decline will affect over 62 million people in Africa cutting them off from their economic and food source. [4] Protecting the ocean is in the interest of everyone and the change to bioplastics will benefit not only the ocean life but human life.

The ozone layer is another essential environment to protect, protecting us from harmful UV rays. Currently plastics generated 1.8 Gigatonnes of greenhouse gas emissions in 2019 alone [5]. Converting to bioplastics will massively reduce this figure helping limit climate change which negatively affects all life on earth.

Increasing the amount of recyclable bioplastics in everyday products will have a positive impact on everyone. The responsibility to create a greener, more sustainable world falls to the consumers of these products, greatly contributing to global warming. Linking to ‘The Good Life’ idea, protecting the environment, something which cannot protect itself would be of the highest good hence through virtue ethics this action is the morally correct approach. This choice occurs at both the consumer and manufacturing level, though the change to the norm will be difficult. A courageous and just person would take these actions when acting on virtue ethics.

Replacing traditional plastics with bioplastics could be seen as taking accountability for the negative impact consumerism has on the environment, and manufacturers would be considered more environmentally friendly and ethical, which is more important now than ever before.

Argument against Bioplastics

For all the benefits bioplastics offer they do not come without a cost.  There is a large utilitarianism ethical argument against switching to bioplastics.  The land required to grow enough raw materials to replace 100% of the UK’s current plastic consumption would amount to 45% of all agricultural land [6].  This would result in a loss of almost half of all food production in the UK.  While there are still people who on a daily basis go without adequate food it would be immoral to half food production which would in turn increase food prices.  Replacing 45% of the UK’s agriculture with plants for the production of bioplastics would also reduce biodiversity and reduce the resistance to disease.  To prevent this having a catastrophic impact on food and plastic production more pesticides and herbicides will need to be used which has a detrimental effect on the environment.

Bioplastics are not a like swap for petroleum plastics.  They have a much shorter lifespan and are at the moment 2-3 times more expensive to produce.  All this will lead to an increased cost to consumers, removing one of the key benefits of plastics, their cheapness.  This isn’t the only increase in cost, the mass change in industry tooling will create a large capital investment that will be spread down to the consumer.  Plastics will cost more and be of poorer quality.

Written into law it states that for a plastic to be considered biodegradable it must pass a test, the product must biodegrade after 12 weeks in an industrial composter in very high temperatures[7]. These are the perfect conditions for biodegradation and are not replicated when naturally breaking down, this can lead to companies abusing these laws producing plastics which pass the test but do not break down at the same rate or at all in imperfect conditions. Hence a moral law can be very easily manipulated by being large corporations looking to make money rather than acting on good will and producing plastics which break down in imperfect conditions.

Through virtue ethics a good person wouldn’t choose to destroy the environment through plastic production and use. Bioplastics are misleading as they can be classed as biodegradable and still need to be broken down in an expensive machine for a few weeks – misleading the consumer and profiting from it, this misleading of customers does not fit the ethical ideas in virtue ethics. Bioplastics do not solve the problem of marine litter, in turn, adding to the greenhouse effect – if people were aware of this, based on this theory, would most likely feel deterred from endorsing and supporting the use of them. As the highest good is not achieved by changing from petroleum based plastics to ethically ambiguous bioplastics, which pass regulations but do not degrade as advertised. So a truly morally virtuous person couldn’t select this alternative.

The petroleum plastics industry is valued at $580 billion[8]. Clearly this figure shows plastic production generates vast amounts of jobs and capital. Maintaining these jobs and global relations based on oil and plastic production, switching to bioplastics would destroy these jobs hence the relationships with these people. Furthermore poorer countries currently relying on producing plastics economies could crash, with the cost of new facilities and retraining leaving them unable to switch. Not only would this damage the relationship of the now unemployed people with their government but also the government’s relations with other countries, who now won’t invest into petroleum based plastics. For these relationships to be protected the change to bioplastics cannot be morally justified through care ethics.

Initial Decision:

We are against the transition to bioplastics as a replacement for petroleum based plastics.

References

[1] Fairs, Marcus. 2021. Hemp “more effective than trees” at sequestering carbon says Cambridge researcher. June 30.

https://www.dezeen.com/2021/06/30/carbon-sequestering-hemp-darshil-shah-interview/#:~:text=%22Industrial%20hemp%20absorbs%20between%208,CO2%20per%20hectare%20of%20cultivation.%22#.

[2] Seedlip. n.d. HOW CAN MUSHROOMS HELP SOLVE THE ISSUE OF SINGLE-USE PLASTIC? https://www.seedlipdrinks.com/en-gb/journal/mycelium-101/.

[3] Georgetown Environmental Law Review. 2019. A Polymer Problem: How Plastic Production and Consumption is Polluting our Oceans. April 17. https://www.law.georgetown.edu/environmental-law-review/blog/a-polymer-problem-how-plastic-production-and-consumption-is-polluting-our-oceans/.

[4] M Ali Jebali, B Gorez. 2021. Living on the frontline: climate change will first impact African coastal fishing communities. October 29. https://www.cffacape.org/publications-blog/climate-change-also-impacts-small-scale-fisheries-in-africa#:~:text=According%20to%20a%20high%20CO2,Ivoire%20and%2060%25%20in%20Ghana.

[5]Mace, Matt. 2022. The facts and figures: The global state of plastics production and pollution. February 22. https://www.edie.net/news/12/The-facts-and-figures–The-global-state-of-plastics-production-and-pollution/#:~:text=The%20OECD%20notes%20that%20plastics,and%20conversion%20from%20fossil%20fuels.

[6] Hannover, Institute for Bioplastics and Biocomposites -. 2021. “Biopolymers facts and statistics. PDF File.” Institute for Bioplastics amd Biocomposites. https://www.ifbb-hannover.de/files/IfBB/downloads/faltblaetter_broschueren/f+s/Biopolymers-Facts-Statistics-einseitig-2021.pdf.

[7]British Plastics Federation. n.d. Packaging Waste Directive & Compostable Packaging. https://www.bpf.co.uk/topics/Standards_for_compostability.aspx.

[8]Tiseo, Ian. 2021. Global plastics industry – statistics & facts. November 22. https://www.statista.com/topics/5266/plastics-industry/#topicHeader__wrapper.

5 thoughts on “Bioplastics: Are they really better than traditional plastics?

  1. Bioplastics is a truly novel subject. I concur with your man; the use of bioplastics must still be evaluated. The very convective point with virtue ethics is more ethics theories can be used, such as utilitarianism and the code of conduct of environmental protection organisations.

  2. This is a meaningful topic about the environment, the article is a good analysis of Bioplastics in Kantian theory, Utilitarian and virtue ethics, and for the first time I realized that Bioplastics is an environmental gimmick of the company. I therefore support the article’s view that Bioplastics should not be used as a substitute for conventional plastics.

  3. Most people are unaware of the harm bioplastics can do to them. Because of the lack of awareness of bioplastics, as well as the false publicity of bioplastics. So they thought they should support bioplastics, based on Kahn’s theory. So I think the problem is more between consumers and the companies that make bioplastics.
    Companies that produce bioplastics are clearly violating virtue theory in order to make a profit. They should tell people the truth and make a utilitarian judgment about whether bioplastics can really improve the ocean environment.

  4. It’s impressive to see that most of the hate and campaigns against plastics are actually ignorant about much of the true scientific data on the harm that plastic alternatives can cause. Especially in environmental dilemmas like this one, it is imperative to see the wider implications of your decisions.

    I liked the argument about law strictness and how in many countries these can be exploited to gain a marketing advantage by writing “bio-degradable” on the label. As pointed out in the virtue ethics arguments, a virtuous individual would turn down the spread of hypocritical hate towards plastics and carefully consider when there is actually a better alternative to petroleum plastics. A really good dilemma that many engineers have to think about.

  5. Feedback
    1. Clarity of problem/dilemma
    The problem is clearly stated with a good point made for each side of the dilemma. Could you have explained the environmental cost?

    2. Use of ethical theories in the For Case
    You used a good range of ethical theories and brought in some new ones, such as environmental ethics. I wasn’t clear on your argument regarding virtue ethics, the actor is the company making the bioplastics, I think.

    3. Use of Ethical theories in the Against case
    I saw that utilitarianism and virtue ethics were used but did you use any other theories? The use of virtue ethics was very good. The Against argument tended to use facts to support the argument and not ethical argumentation. (Unless, I’ve over-looked, in which case, please let me know.)

    4. Advice on Assignment Two
    a. Identifying stakeholders
    b. Courses of action
    An obvious stakeholder is the environment. There are more direct stakeholders too.
    Course for Action are difficult as there is a perception that plastic is bad, and perhaps the perception should be ‘being careless with how we consume and dispose of plastic is bad’. The pandemic increased the use of plastic due to its hygiene properties, and again there are ethical arguments to be made here.

    5. Personal remarks
    A great choice of topic. 😀
    My family business makes cider and we had a similar debate about whether to use glass bottles or plastic bottles, we ended up using plastic bottles. Partly, informed by this insight: https://youtu.be/bBYfFkl-4d0

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