Biodegradable plastic utensils
Scott Bauer, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)

Bio-based plastics come from the earth, and those that are biodegradable can return to it—often with lower carbon emissions.


Reduce SourcesIndustryImprove Materials
CO2 Equivalent
Reduced / Sequestered
Billion $US
Net First Cost
(To Implement Solution)
Billion $US
Lifetime Net
Operational Savings
Most plastics are made from fossil fuels, but bioplastics utilize plants as an alternative source of carbon. They often have lower emissions and sometimes biodegrade.

Solution Summary*

Globally, we produce roughly 310 million metric tons of plastic each year. Almost all of it is petro-plastic, made from fossil fuels. Experts, however, estimate that 90 percent of current plastics could be derived from plants instead. Bio-based plastics come from the Earth, and those that are biodegradable can return to it—often with lower carbon emissions.

What affords plastics their malleability are chainlike polymers, composed of many atoms or molecules bound to one another. Cellulose, the most abundant organic material on Earth, is a polymer in the cell walls of plants. Chitin is another abundant polymer, found in the shells and exoskeletons of crustaceans and insects. Potatoes, sugarcane, tree bark, algae, and shrimp all contain natural polymers that can be converted to plastic.

Most bioplastics are used in packaging, but they are finding their way into everything from textiles to pharmaceuticals to electronics. Research continues to push the bounds of feedstocks, formulations, and applications. Bioplastics can sequester carbon, especially when made from waste biomass. The big challenge for bioplastics is separation from other waste and appropriate processing. Otherwise, they do not fulfill their promise as more sustainable materials.

* excerpted from the book, Drawdown

We estimate the total production of plastics to grow from 311 million tons in 2014 to at least 792 million tons by 2050. This is conservative, with other sources estimating more than 1 billion tons if trends continue. We model the growth of bioplastics to capture 12–46 percent of the market by 2050, avoiding 0.96–3.8 gigatons of emissions. The cost to produce bioplastics in this scenario is US$25–88 billion over 30 years.