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What are bioplastics?

Bioplastics are alternative materials to plastics of synthetic origin, but derived from sources rinnovabiomass biles such as vegetable fats and oils, corn starch, straw, wood chips, food waste, lactic acid and sometimes plastic waste.

It is correct to state that the bioplastics they are ecological alternatives to ordinary plastics.

Common plastics based on fossil fuels derive from oil or natural gas, are recyclable but not biodegradable or compostable. While some bioplastics they are biodegradable if left in nature, but most of them are compostable, always if correctly disposed of in the wet and subsequently subjected to the composting process.

There being many forms of bioplastic on the market, it is good to know that about 70% of these are not biodegradable if left in nature. And it is equally important to know that these also release the famous ones microplastics.

Among the disadvantages of the bioplastic this cannot be used to bottle carbonated drinks, not even to vacuum-pack food, and most of them cannot withstand temperatures above 45 °.

Although they still have limits from an environmental and functional point of view, they are still more ecological than those of fossil origin.

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What are bioplastics?

Bio-Based Bioplastics

  • PET
  • PE
  • PA
  • PEF
  • PURE
Biodegradable Bioplastics

  • pbator
  • PBS
  • PLA
  • PHA

Difference between bio-based and biodegradable bioplastic

We pay attention to this difference, as the word "bioplastic" can be misleading, making us believe that they are of organic origin:

Bio-based: the term bio-based means that the material, or product, is partly derived from plant biomass, such as corn, sugar cane or cellulose.

Biodegradable: biodegradation is a chemical process during which the microorganisms of which a material is made are transformed into natural substances such as water, carbon dioxide and compost (without the aid of artificial additives).

From vegetable waste to ecological bioplastics (video)

The bioplastics market

The use of bioplastics has been growing rapidly, especially in the last decade, given the burning issue of environmental pollution caused by plastic.

Plastic recycling is a business in which many companies and investors have ventured, but despite being the "old plastic" a great resource to be exploited, the production of biodegradable bioplastic if left in nature, it is certainly one of the solutions to the problem of plastic pollution.

In 2016 the bioplastics they represented approximately 1,7% of the global polymer market. Specifically, here's what the bioplastics market looked like in 2016:

Bioplastics market statistics in 2016

Le bioplastics they have many applications, even if much fewer than her. Certainly shopping bags, glasses, cutlery and plates, packaging, are the most common applications.

In fashion, after the rapid development of textile fibers synthetics born thanks to the recycling of plastic such as Econyl e NewLife, today we see nuove artificial fibers composed of bioplastics used to create bags and accessories.

Is bioplastic really sustainable?

Humanity's earliest interest in bioplastics was centered on obtaining economical and high-performance biopolymers, without paying much attention to end-of-life sustainability.

Despite this limitation, the "first wave" of bioplastics has undeniably weaned the packaging industry's dependence on petroleum: they still tend to be greener than their petroleum-based counterparts, simply because they avoid non-raw materials. rinnovabile.

Given the amount of waste generated by global industry, use bio-based packaging it would eliminate a huge portion of plastic pollution.

However, we assume that a "truly sustainable" packaging must meet three criteria:

  1. It should be produced from raw materials rinnovabile.
  2. It should be compostable.
  3. It should be recyclable: once melted, it will perform similarly to virgin materials.

However, the development of this biopackaging dream seems to be really complex. Of the approximately 2 million tons of bioplastics produced each year, very few meet all these conditions.

Examples of bioplastics

We will point out a few below examples of bioplastics of the latest generation, constantly updating this section as we find out about nuos.

A sustainable sugar-based bioplastic

University of Birmingham researchers together with Duke University researchers developed a sugar-based bioplastic.

Researchers have developed two types of materials that can replace plastics and which are commonly referred to as bioplastics (plastics of organic origin):

  1. one similar to rubber
  2. a strong but flexible one

The performance of these bioplastics made with sugar they are equal to or superior to those of petroleum-based plastics or even other bioplastics, while being biodegradable and easy to recycle.

Unlike other plastics, the mechanical properties of these nuove bioplastics they are not altered after their recycling, which makes them usable several times.

As an alternative to petroleum-derived plastics, bioplastics obtained from plant sources rinnovabiles, such as corn starch or sugar cane, have already been on the market for some time and are becoming more and more popular.

However, most of them they biodegrade only in industrial composting plants and must be recycled separately from other plastics.

The problem is that the practice of separate collection is not carried out in all countries.

In addition, the mechanical properties of many bioplastics alternatives to plastic, do not match those of traditional petroleum-derived plastics, says Matthew Becker, professor of chemistry at Duke University, who led the nuoI work with Andrew Dove, Professor of Chemistry at the University of Birmingham, UK.

“Many researchers have used sugar and sustainably sourced raw materials to synthesize materials, however, the properties are often poor and therefore not useful in commercial application."Says Dr. Matthew.

In this case, the researchers obtained two different organic compounds from sugar alcohols and used them as "building blocks" for their bioplastic. The two compounds contain ring structures made of the same atoms, but their properties differ based on how the atoms are arranged relative to each other.

According to the study, "Plastic made from one of the compounds is as rigid but malleable as ordinary plastic and as strong as high-tech plastic, such as Nylon-6. The other compound provides equally strong plastics but also has better elastic properties than known rubbers".

Both bioplastics retain the same properties after being heated and reformed using the typical process Recycling used for traditional plastics.

A huge benefit: it would allow waste recycling companies to use the same process used for plastics, which would speed up the market entry of these bioplastics.

Preliminary laboratory tests have also shown that the nuove plastics are capable of biodegrade, albeit slowly, when released into the environment.

"The mechanical and degradation properties exhibited by the materials are adjustable, which will be important for many of the applications we address.“Says Becker “These materials could be applied to a number of substitute applications, including food packaging".

The complex structure and stereoisomerism found in natural compounds provide a strategic advantage in the effort to create bioplastics that are sustainable and at the same time mechanically robust like petroleum-based plastics.

We have to get into the technical to explain the key feature of this nuogoes bioplastic sugar based: companies that want to buy it (when it comes on the market, because at the moment it is not yet) will be able to customize it to make it suitable for the use they want to make of it; for example if it will become a shopper, a toy, a container, etc.

The difference in fundamental deformation behavior between isoidide and isomannide-based materials, as well as their exceptional mechanical characteristics per se, testify to the potential to exploit stereochemistry to direct supramolecular interactions in monomeric raw materials of biological origin.

However, the most notable feature of this system is the distinct difference in properties resulting from the stereochemically distinct hydrogen bond in otherwise compositionally and stoichiometric identical materials.

With this study the ability to independently tune or decouple the rate of hydrolytic degradation from thermomechanical properties was shown, also controlling these characteristics through simple copolymerization or mixing strategies.

Simply put, this property manipulation is unmatched in the bioplastics portfolio currently on the market and offers it development of bioplastics with optimization of properties on request by users, made possible by the manipulation of stereochemistry.

We therefore hope to see it on the market soon.

Waste water: from waste to resource to create bioplastic

Kasra Khatami Mashhadi, Materials Recycling Researcher at KTH, is developing a way to transform wastewater residues into bioplastics, using bacteria. In fact, the bacteria in the wastewater act as “natural bioplastic factories”.

"Most people think of wastewater as something that stinks and hurts, but we use it to make usable materials“, Says Kasra Khatami Mashhadi.

In purification plants, wastewater is treated and purified, and slag remains that can be used to create nuoyou products. The bacteria in the waste have a unique property that the researchers want to exploit.

"We can use household and industrial wastewater to produce bioplastics with the help of our friendly bacteria“Says Kasra Khatami Mashhadi who is investigating how the production of bplastics of wastewater can become more efficient.

Currently, this residue from sewage treatment plants is often recycled to create biogas for buses and manure for fields. But at KTH, Kasra Khatami Mashhadi is studying how wastewater bacteria can become more efficient at producing bioplastics.

Bacteria store energy in the form of chemicals that researchers can extract to convert into bioplastics.

Bioplastics based on organic materials they can be created from residual products such as waste water or food waste e they are less harmful to nature, as they can decompose more easily, avoiding residual microplastic.

"It takes over 300 years for ordinary plastic to decompose. But bioplastics are broken down in the environment in two months and do not harm the environment”Adds Kasra Khatami Mashhadi.

"Instead of throwing away the waste, we recycle it and try to get as much of it as possible. It is both cheap material and available in large quantities all over the world".

Bioplastics have the potential to be applied in numerous sectors, from packaging to medical materials. So far they are only produced in this way on a small scale, but Kasra Khatami Mashhadi believes that soon we could see their production on a larger scale as well.

Shellwork Shellmer: the truly sustainable bioplastic

The British startup Shellworks is defining nuothere standards for the ecological packaging industry and in particular for bioplastics. In fact, it aims to make products that can completely replace petroleum-derived plastics.

Shellworks various compostable bioplastics

Shellworks' flagship material, called Shellmer, offers (perhaps) the most sustainable bioplastic on the market. Meets all three criteria for "dream bioplastic".

This material is so environmentally friendly that it can be left in the soil as a fertilizer at the end of its life.

Shellmer it consists of the biopolymer Chitosan, which is chemically similar to cellulose. Chitosan is derived from a natural substance called chitin which is found in many animals, particularly crustacean shells - Shellworks extracts this substance from fish waste, which means that the raw material is also circular.

Shellworks was founded in 2020 by Imperial College graduates: Insiya Jafferjee, Amir Afshar and Edward Jones. The three had met on the Innovation Design Engineering master's program offered jointly by the Royal College of Art and Imperial College. They shared a passion for engineering and design together, particularly within technologies bio-based.

The idea of ​​creating a company was born when the three students decided to tackle the problem of ocean pollution: developing a machine to produce environmentally friendly cosmetics and food packaging using fish shells and vinegar.

Shellworks was born when their innovation won the Venture 2020 catalyst challenge. The company remains in its proof-of-concept phase, having just finished a six-month startup development residency at Workerversity.

However, they have attracted a total of $ 1,4 million in investment and have already brought their first batch of products to market.

Shellworks also manufactures compostable, customizable and ready-to-use containers for lipsticks, creams, food and oils. All of their products are made in-house at their facility in London.

Their bioplastics they rival conventional plastics to offer varying degrees of thickness, stiffness, opacity and colors. Shellworks delivers natural dyes that work with their bio-based materials in a multitude of shades, from bright yellows to vibrant blues and blacks.

Shellworks Instagram profile feed

Their Instagram curates an eye-catching array of multi-colored pots, bags and wrapping films, as well as experimental samples showing the different textures that can be achieved with Chitosan. With this emphasis on design, it's no surprise that Shellworks grabs attention.

Shellworks' stated goal is to "make plastic waste a thing of the past". In pursuit of this goal, they are defining nuovi sustainability standards in the bioplastics sector.

La chitin indeed offers a nuogoes exciting solution for the next generation of bio-based plastics, especially because it is abundant. After cellulose, it is the most widespread biopolymer in the world: in addition to shells, they are found in the exoskeletons of insects and in the cell wall of fungi.

There are various types of chitin which differ in their mechanical properties depending on their natural source and how it is purified.

Research on chitin and chitosan has been ongoing for seven decades, but the material hasn't been commercialized until recently. The production scale is still small: in 2019 around 210 tons of chitosan compared to 2,1 million tons of bioplastics produced in the world.

However, the market for this biopolymer is poised to grow rapidly.

The applications for this material do not end in the packaging. It has been transformed into powders, fibers, films, beads, sponges, gels and solutions. It is already used in wound treatment for its antimicrobial and hemostatic properties. This substance offers a good replacement for many applications where we use petroleum-based plastics.

Shellworks is perhaps the first company to take chitin out of the lab and put it on the market biopackaging.

They are now developing machines that can process the substance on a large scale. Their research and development pipeline is full of nuoexciting products: antibacterial blisters, food bags and self-fertilizing plant pots.

To really "affect" the plastics industry, the team recognizes that they must "invent an ecosystem completely nuovo“, A great challenge for a small startup.

What's wrong with bioplastics?

By definition, all bioplastics meet the first criterion for ideal sustainable plastics: la rinnovability. However, many of these perform no better than their petroleum-based synthetic counterparts, especially when it comes to biodegradability.

Half of the bioplastics market it is in fact made up of products that are not completely biodegradable. These include bio-based polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), polyamide (PA) and polyethylene terephthalate (PET).

More bioplastics, like PLA, are biodegradable but only under specific conditions: they must be processed in specially equipped facilities found only in a few cities in the world.

With limited access to specialist treatment services, bio-based materials tend to end up in the natural environment where they pose the same risks as petroleum-based plastics. While bioplastics reaching specialized structures still require thermal decomposition processes that consume enormous amounts of energy.

Then there is the recyclability. The biopolymers on the market such as bio-PE, bio-PP, bio-Pet and bio-PA can be produced from sources rinnovabut they share the same chemical structure and composition as petroleum-based plastics: this means that they cannot be reused.

Shellworks compostable bioplastic bags

Compostability has a stronger claim to sustainability than biodegradability.

It refers to materials that can be broken down by common microbes into non-toxic compounds. This overcomes the problem posed by even completely biodegradable plastics which degrade into toxic and persistent compounds.


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Where can I buy bioplastics?

Vesti la natura has created a table with more than 40 sustainable materials, their respective applications in the textile sector, and their suppliers (even for small quantities). To access the table we ask you to donate a small financial contribution to our association. Click here for more information.

Does bioplastic release micro-plastics if left in nature?

Yes, all bioplastics release them. In some cases these are harmful to the environment, in other cases they are organic elements that do not carry toxic substances that are dangerous for the environment. It depends on the type of bioplastic we are talking about.

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