In the Media: PhD student Xia (Alice) Zhu says bioplastics alone won’t save the planet

January 31, 2023 by David Goldberg - A&S News

Xia (Alice) Zhu, an Arts & Science alum and current PhD student at U of T Scarborough, raises concerns about the prevalence of biodegradable plastics, noting they aren’t the solution to humankind’s plastic addiction.

“[Bioplastics] are not permanent solutions because they still reaffirm the take-make-waste linear economy mindset,” Zhu told Bloomberg.

Zhu graduated with an honours bachelor of science as a member of Victoria College in 2017 before earning a master’s degree from the Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology in 2019.

Now, as an environmental analytical scientist specializing in marine debris and plastic pollution, Zhu warns that even bioplastics are hurting the Earth in a way we don’t necessarily see.

Any kind of plastic produces carbon emissions as it breaks down. Conventional plastics may take centuries to breakdown and bioplastics take weeks or months, in theory, producing carbon emissions much sooner.

But is that something to be concerned about?

“We need to quantify these emissions and study them further,” says Zhu. “We don’t really know how well biodegradable plastics function in the first place, but so far, many products on the market that claim to degrade within a given period of time have not held up to expectations.”

As plastic production is expected to rapidly grow in the following decades, Zhu says urgent action is required for “circular solutions.”

“It's so much easier and cheaper at the moment to use raw materials than to take care of the materials we already have,” says Zhu. “It's very important we drive down the costs of recycling plastics to make them more attractive than using virgin materials.

“We need companies to start taking responsibility for the waste they produce instead of putting the onus on the consumer.”

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