Research currently led by Monica I. Rodriguez Morris, MS, and supported by the Environmental Research and Education Foundation is seeking to assess bioplastic on a more real-world level, which could be key to harnessing the potential of this plastic alternative. The goal of this groundbreaking research is to potentially clarify conflicting evidence of the benefits versus the adverse impacts of bioplastics when compared to conventional plastics.
Life cycle assessment (LCA) is a methodology used by researchers to study the stages of a product’s life and quantify the environmental impacts. With bioplastics, most research in existence has focused on the raw materials and includes use and disposal scenarios which have been stylized for research purposes. In an LCA, one of the stages studied is disposal. When modeling this stage, researchers don’t necessarily have the true reflection of a product’s ultimate disposal due to the end scenarios which have been predicted and modeled for research purposes, as opposed to directly observed. There are fundamental gaps in research of the role of human behavior when it comes to disposal of bioplastic products and its subsequent environmental impacts.
One of the gaps is the ability to predict what choices people will make when they need to throw plastic packaging away. When modeling, there can be challenges with local data: specific behaviors may be localized geographically and/or relate to specific demographics of the person or sampled population. As an example of problematic modeling, a researcher may use 100% of the product going to a landfill as their end-scenario, but some portion may end up as litter, another in the recycling as recycling contamination, and some may be reused. Variables in human behavior which can impact disposal-stage data can include the convenience factor, as well as knowledge of recycling options, or lack thereof.
In an effort to bridge these end-stage behavioral research gaps, Morris is working on a study at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to track cups as they move through their life stages across the campus. A small chip within a sticker will be placed on “compostable” cups made of polyactic acid (PLA) to track their usage and disposal journey. This will help her identify their final destination when these cups are discarded. The cups will have three options by which to be discarded across the UW-Madison campus: compost, recycling, and regular waste.
The current hypothesis of where bioplastics ultimately end up is the landfill. Through the data that Morris will gather during this study, she will observe what actually happens to these products on a real-world level to validate the hypothesis. This new data could help researchers better understand the intersection between the fate of bioplastic products and how people interact with packaging made from this material. Going forward with sustainability of materials in mind, this more accurate assessment of bioplastics can support decision makers in the packaging and product industry.