Bio-Based Plastics Aim to Capture Carbon. But at What Cost?

Growing crops to make plastic could theoretically reduce reliance on fossil fuels and even pull carbon out of the atmosphere, but at an enormous environmental cost.

Bioplastics [...] use carbon extracted from crops like corn or sugarcane, which is then mixed with other chemicals, like plasticizers, found in traditional plastics. Growing those plants pulls carbon out of the atmosphere, and locks it inside the bioplastic—if it is used for a permanent purpose, like building materials, rather than single-use cups and bags.

At least, that’s the theory. In reality, bio-based plastics are problematic for a variety of reasons. It would take an astounding amount of land and water to grow enough plants to replace traditional plastics—plus energy is needed to produce and ship it all. Bioplastics can be loaded with the same toxic additives that make a plastic plastic, and still splinter into micro-sized bits that corrupt the land, sea, and air. And switching to bioplastics could give the industry an excuse to keep producing exponentially more polymers under the guise of “eco-friendliness,” when scientists and environmentalists agree that the only way to stop the crisis is to just stop producing so much damn plastic, whatever its source of carbon.